Questions of scale continue: From the article:
Sangji's letter also alleges that the investigator ignored key information she relayed to him from her critically burned sister, including that she had made three transfers each of 50 milliliters, or about 1.7 ounces. The investigator's report, obtained through a California Public Records Act request, put the volume of t-butyl lithium at 20 milliliters... The family also contends that the investigator ignored a UCLA fire marshal's report, which quoted Harran as saying that Sangji probably was transferring 40 to 50 milliliters of the chemical and that a different method would have been preferred for that amount.All right, what gives? The scale from before was 20 mL of 1.7M tBuLi in pentane, which I've pointed out previously, is a pretty big amount of tert-butyllithium for an academic lab for one reaction. If the reports of the UCLA fire marshal's investigation and Harran's statement are true, the new amounts are quite large. Moreover, the family's amount (150 mL) is stunning. Let's use the calculations I did last time (2.0 equiv tBuLi (assuming lithium-halogen exchange), MW 250). Now we're talking about either 8.5 to 10.6 grams (Harran's speculation) or 31.9 grams starting material (Sangji family statement).
Not to repeat myself, but it's becoming quite clear to me that Ms. Sangji was performing a scale-up, where she was repeating previous work done on smaller amounts. Even in more experienced hands, this would have cried out for extreme levels of caution. On this scale (40-150 mL), cannulation would have been far preferable -- and would have required that much more supervision, as it is a much more tricky technique.
Continuing on, Christensen writes about the most serious allegations by the family against Professor Harran:
The investigator also failed to take into account UCLA fire officials' initial concerns that the accident scene had been tampered with, Sangji's letter says. On the night of the fire, a deputy fire marshal had ordered Harran and his researchers to stay out of the lab, which was then locked and secured with plastic crime-scene tape, records show. But the next morning, the deputy reported, he found that some 5-gallon drums of improperly stored flammable liquids were gone, and other items had been moved around.
There also was no sign of a container of highly flammable hexane that Sheri Sangji said had spilled and fueled the flash fire that engulfed her, according to a report by Los Angeles fire officials who interviewed her shortly afterward. When UCLA fire officials interviewed Harran on Feb. 5, he said he knew nothing about the hexane. He acknowledged asking two researchers to clean up the lab and remove the drums, but said he had no ulterior motive. "I just wanted to get all those drums out," he said. "It was my fault. . . . And it didn't relate to the accident, but it just looked bad."
The suspected tampering triggered a criminal investigation by UCLA police, who concluded in January that no crime had been committed, records show. Cal-OSHA's Bureau of Investigation has launched its own probe, as it routinely does in death cases, to determine if there is evidence of a crime. Fryer would say only that it is ongoing.There are two separate facts being introduced here. Let's take them one at a time:
Hexanes in the hood: Of all the new facts introduced, I find this one the most believable. Typical organic chemists split their hoods in two, mentally and physically: one side for reaction running, another for reaction workup and purification. It is entirely unsurprising if a open container of hexanes was located nearby (for a flash column) and were to have caught on fire. Whether it actually did or not is something that I cannot answer -- however, the possibility of such a container being present is entirely reasonable.
Cleanup or cleanup?: I am shocked and surprised at the revelation that Professor Harran countermanded the deputy fire marshal's orders and asked his employees to remove the offending drums of solvent. This shows extraordinarily bad judgment on the part of Professor Harran. While I have no reason not to take him at his word, I find this action odd, unwise and also selfish. If he had wanted to break a crime scene seal and tidy up appearances, why didn't he do it himself rather than asking his employees to do it? I feel this revelation permanently damages his reputation with the chemistry community, as it is an error of commission, not of omission.*
*I am sympathetic to the thought that Professor Harran was not in a proper state of mind when he suggested this course of action. Impulses to cover up your mistakes are pretty natural, really. Acting on them, though, is a different matter.
What now?: I don't know if there will ever be a full accounting of what happened to Sheri Sangji on December 29, 2008. Most of the relevant safety facts are already known to the chemistry community and the lessons have been broadcast, if not learned: tBuLi is dangerous and needs to be used with the utmost care, proper PPE is essential to lab safety and that academic lab safety leaves quite a lot to be desired. Caveat discipulus (student, beware! and chemist!)
But the academic science community thrives best on openness and frank discussion. In that vein and with a nod towards full disclosure of the details of the accident, I respectfully call for the publication of the notebook page of the fatal reaction. This is the only scientific (and legal!) document that can fully explain what Sheri Sangji was attempting to do that day.