Hitchner Hall was evacuated at 12:15 p.m. last Thursday due to a hazardous gas leak caused by a chemical reaction that was not properly contained. Local police and fire crews cordoned off the building and worked to vent the gas out of the building. By 2:15 p.m. the same day, the building was deemed safe for people to return.
Around 150 people were in the building at the time of the incident. Four occupants, who were in close proximity to the reaction when it occurred, were sent to Cutler Health Center to be examined and were cleared. No further injuries were been reported.
Hitchner Hall, located directly across from the Memorial Union on Sebago Road, primarily houses courses that focus on chemistry and biology. Faculty and students realized the danger of the chemicals that are used in the building and have experienced similar but less serious events in the past. Even so, several staff members were caught off guard.
“We’ve had these before, but nothing this significant,” one staff member said. “I think this is the first time the fire alarm’s gone off [in Hitchner Hall].”
At approximately 11:47 a.m., a lab technician in the third floor hallway was attempting to dispose of chlorine tablets by neutralizing them in water and sodium bisulfate in a bucket. The reaction produced an excess amount of chlorine gas, which the technician attempted to contain by putting a lid on the bucket. Chlorine gas is very hazardous, and exposure can cause damage to the eyes, nose and respiratory system.
The technician then triggered the fire alarm and called the UMaine Police Department. UMPD officers were on the scene by 12:15 and proceeded to evacuate people from the premises. Crews from the Orono Fire Department and the Orono-Old Town Emergency Response Team arrived shortly after with a Hazardous Materials crew to seal the building and begin venting the gas out. The HazMat team proceeded to remove the bucket containing the hazardous gas from the building.
It took approximately two hours to vent the gas out of the building. In the meantime, many students and teachers watched and waited in the Union and surrounding parking lots.
“I got there to work, and the police had [Hitchner] all taped off,” said one student who has been conducting research in the hall. “It was cold, so I just ended up leaving.”
Typically, the disposal of chemical waste is left to the University of Maine Safety & Environmental Management Department. They take chemical waste from Hitchner and other laboratories on campus to secure locations where it is stored and eventually disposed of in a safe manner. The group is also responsible for maintaining safety standards within UMaine laboratories and ensuring that the proper procedures are followed.
Director of Safety and Environmental Management Wayne Maines is thankful no one was hurt, and he believes this will be a learning experience.
“Even though [the technician] didn’t dispose of the chlorine properly, they did the right thing, notifying the police and pulling the fire alarm,” Maines said. “They will need to review the proper procedure, but everything after the initial incident was done right.”
The quick speed and close proximity of emergency responders is also something that Maines believes is crucial for safety on campus. According to Maines, the local hazardous materials team is also responsible for a large portion of Maine, extending northward to the Canadian border, so having them be housed so close to campus is a huge asset.
“The Orono Fire Department, the police, hazmat — they were all fantastic. We’re lucky that they’re so close by,” Maines said. “Things definitely could have been worse.”