By Joel Sams
Senior News Writer

An accidental flash fire left an Asbury student and a faculty member with minor injuries on Jan. 16.

The fire occurred in a chemistry lab in the Hamann-Ray Science Building, according to Dr. Bobby Baldridge, chair of the Natural Sciences Department.

Freshman Ronnie Sams says that he, chemistry instructor Laura Walther and sophomore Eli Gruver were performing an exercise involving methane and oxygen for a class, General College Chemistry II. Though other students are enrolled in the class, Gruver, Sams and Walther were the only people present at the time of the fire. After Gruver had finished filling a partial bag of methane with oxygen from a tank, with Walther’s assistance, the oxygen tank valve was shut off, according to procedure. As the tube used to fill the bag was withdrawn, the gas ignited in Gruver’s hands, leaving him with first- and second-degree burns on the outsides of his hands, and Walther with burns on her face. 

Gruver and Walther were taken to a University of Kentucky emergency room for treatment.
Wilmore Fire Chief Jimmy Powers says Asbury University made an emergency call around 4:15 p.m. Responders included five firefighters from the Wilmore Fire Department, two police officers from the Nicholasville Police Department, two personnel from the Nicholasville Disaster Emergency Service and approximately five emergency medical technicians.

Though the accident was initially reported as an “an explosion with several victims,” Powers, who first on the scene, discovered that it was not an explosion, but a flash fire. The fire was contained, and there was no damage to the room. The Collegian has filed an open records request with the Office of the State Fire Marshal to verify the cause of the fire.

The goal of the exercise, according to Sams, was to ignite the bags of mixed gases outdoors, illustrating an exothermic, or energy-releasing, chemical reaction. 

Dan Lowry, director of communications for the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, says that while he cannot comment on the safety of this particular exercise without investigation, “generally these types of exercises are considered safe.” 

The Kentucky Labor Cabinet does not currently intend to undertake an investigation of the incident. Although Walther and Gruver were sent to the emergency room, they were not officially hospitalized. Had Gruver and Walther been hospitalized, the Labor Cabinet would have required a report from the university and would have launched a subsequent investigation.

Because the university has followed proper procedure, it will be allowed to evaluate and resolve the issue.

“Obviously in this case there were minor injuries, which indicates a danger and the possibility that better safety measures should be evaluated and implemented,” Lowry said. “This particular exercise should be evaluated to see how to prevent another such incident before continuing in the same manner.” 

According to Gruver, all safety protocols were properly followed, but he did not wear gloves, as that “wasn’t part of the safety procedure.”
Walther could not be reached for comment.

Though Gruver says he’s still in “quite a bit of pain,” he expects to fully recover within a couple of weeks, and he’s grateful for the help and kindness shown to him and Walther after the accident.

According to Glenn Hamilton, Asbury’s vice president of operations, “Campus administrators are in the process of meeting with individuals involved to determine, if possible, the cause of the accident and if any procedural changes are necessary to further insure the safety of our students.”