Courtesy of BRIAN KALISH
The Beeghly Building was evacuated at 11:54 a.m. due to vapors of sodium acetate, a crystallized compound commonly found in handwarmers. The building has since been re-opened.
A handwarmer in boiling water set off a smoke alarm and evacuated the Beeghly Building for nearly an hour while the D.C. Fire Department’s Hazardous Material Unit (Hazmat) responded to the incident.
Adjunct Professor Jane Ferguson said she was preparing a demonstration in a first floor Beeghly lab with the handwarmer — which contains sodium acetate, commonly found in heating pads — and water when the smoke alarm sounded.
She was not in the room when the alarm went off, and neither were students, she said.
Sodium acetate is non-flammable and is “kind of like burning table salt,” Ferguson said, standing outside Beeghly in her white lab coat.
An automated alarm reacted to a vapor in a first floor Beeghly laboratory, according to Public Information Officer Pete Piringer of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.
Four fire trucks, an ambulance, the Hazmat truck and various DCFD SUVs and trucks responded to the call at 12:30 p.m. Piringer said the building was evacuated smoothly, and no one was sick or exposed to the compound.
The Hazmat Unit, dressed in encapsulated suits with air tanks, opened windows and blew fans to ventilate the building, Piringer said.
“It’s all precautionary,” he said.
A 1:10 p.m. campus text message and e-mail alert warned students: “Dangerous chemical spilled at Beeghley Building. Evacuate building immediately and stay away until further notice.”
Post-baccalaureate student Mary Smith said she was on the fourth floor of Beeghly when the alarm sounded. She and freshman Mary May Kozlik grabbed their coats and evacuated the building.
“Everything was pretty relaxed. We thought it was a fire alarm, a practice alarm,” Smith said, stilling wearing her medical gloves. “But because it’s the chemistry department, everyone was worried.”
Smith and Kozlik said the fire department’s response was “not very urgent at all.” Students were allowed to collect their belongings from Beeghly only on the first floor.
AU sent out another text and e-mail alert at 1:38 p.m., notifying students that an all clear had been given for the building.