With Michael Torrice
A chemical safety expert testified Tuesday in a Los Angeles court about his reconstruction of the events that led to the Dec. 29, 2008 fire in the lab of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. The testimony was part of the ongoing preliminary hearing for Harran, who faces felony charges of labor code violations related to the fire. Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a research assistant in the lab, died from burns she received in the fire.
On Friday, day one of the hearing, the prosecution called the fire department arson investigator who interviewed Sangji in the emergency room, Sangji’s burn doctor, and the pathologist who did the autopsy on Sangji’s body. Harran’s defense attorney, Thomas O’Brien, cross-examined all three witnesses.
On Monday, day two of the hearing, the prosecution called California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator Brian Baudendistel. Baudendistel did not complete testifying.
On Tuesday, Baudendistel did not return to the stand. The prosecution instead called its next witness, Neal Langerman, out of order because of scheduling constraints. Langerman is the owner and principal scientist of the consulting company Advanced Chemical Safety, and is treasurer and past-chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Health & Safety. Prior to becoming a safety consultant, Langerman got a Ph.D. in chemistry and was a faculty member at Tufts University and Utah State University. He has also been a frequent source for C&EN on the Sangji case and other matters.
Deputy District Attorney Marguerite Rizzo questioned Langerman. To establish Langerman as an expert capable of reconstructing what happened leading up to the laboratory fire, Rizzo asked him about his education and credentials in the field of chemistry and chemical safety. Before Rizzo could move on to Langerman’s reconstruction of events, defense attorney O’Brien objected that there had been no testimony about the witness’ past work on investigating laboratory accidents. The judge overruled the objection after she allowed O’Brien to ask Langerman about past cases Langerman had worked on.
The rest of Langerman’s testimony walked through what he knew about Sangji’s first work with tert-butyllithium on Oct. 17, 2008, as well as what she likely did on the day of the fire, based on her lab notebook and Cal/OSHA interviews with others related to the case. The details of Langerman’s testimony largely echoed C&EN’s previous reporting, with a few exceptions: On the day of the fire, Dec. 29, 2008, Sangji did two titrations to check the concentration of tert-butyllithium in solution. Langerman testified that those were likely titrations of two different bottles, not replicate titrations of the same bottle. The bottle Sangji used in the incident only contained 100 mL of solution and Sangji needed about 160 mL, so she would have needed a second bottle.
Also, Langerman testified that Sangji appeared to successfully complete one syringe transfer of tert-butyllithium from the bottle to her reaction flask, based on a Cal/OSHA interview with Harran in which he said that she’d formed some vinyllithium. Sangji then likely reused the same syringe to attempt a second transfer, and that was likely the transfer in which the plunger came out of the syringe barrel, exposing the tert-butyllithium to air and initiating the fire. There is no evidence of a second syringe or needle, nor is there evidence of a second bottle in the hood. Langerman also testified that an open container of hexane in the hood that also spilled and caught fire was likely there for Sangji to use to rinse the syringe.
Overall, Langerman testified that, as C&EN has previously reported, Sangji used poor technique in the experiment, going against the chemical manufacturer’s recommendations(*) for how to handle tert-butyllithium. She used a syringe rather than a cannula to transfer more than 50 mL; she used a needle that was too short, did not clamp the bottle, and, as a result, had to manipulate an upside-down bottle and 60 mL syringe; she likely overfilled the syringe; and she reused the syringe. Langerman also testified that Sangji was not wearing appropriate personal protective equipment: a full-face shield, as well as fire-resistant gloves and either a lab coat or some other garment. Such fire-resistant protection or even a cotton lab coat would have reduced the burns Sangji sustained, Langerman said.
Sangji also did not have the training and skill to perform the experiment unsupervised, Langerman testified. “When you ask an untrained person to deal with a high-risk task, something bad is going to happen,” he said. As C&EN has reported in the past, Sangji had received a bachelor’s degree from Pomona College in May, 2008, and subsequently worked for Norac Pharma. The first time she handled a pyrophoric reagent was in Harran’s lab for the Oct. 17, 2008 experiment. The second time was the day of the fire. The available evidence indicates that she received little or poor training in how to handle the chemical.
The hearing will resume today, when Baudendistel should return to the stand to continue his testimony from Monday. Langerman is scheduled to reappear for cross-examination on Dec. 18.
(*) The “chemical manufacturer’s recommendations” link goes to the version of Sigma-Aldrich Technical Bulletin AL-134 for handling air-sensitive reagents that was available in 2008/2009. The company has since updated the bulletin and the current version is available here.