[The teacher] was demonstrating the experiment … with the different elements causing the fire to change color, and as the fire was dying down she added more alcohol
Details are still sketchy, but as we’ve seen many times before, most likely what happened was that the methanol supply or its vapor caught fire, flashed back into the stock container, and blew out toward the students.
Two of the Woodson students were airlifted to area hospitals; one was reported to be in critical condition on Friday. On Sunday, both were in fair condition, according to a MedStar Washington Hospital Center spokesperson. One of the students, Sonya Garvis, has serious burns to her arm and will need surgery in the coming week, NBC Washington reported. The other three students were taken to a hospital, treated, and released on Friday. The teacher was treated at the school.
As long-time blog readers know, the American Chemical Society and U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board have both warned against using flammable solvents, such as methanol, with this demonstration. A safer alternative is to soak wooden sticks in salt solutions and then burn the sticks in a flame. The National Fire Protection Association last year updated its standard for laboratories using chemicals to include requirements for demonstrations.
Monday, Nov. 2, afternoon update:
One of the two hospitalized students was discharged. The Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent has ordered these actions:
- Immediate suspension of the use of any and all open flames in all FCPS science classroom until further notice
- Conduct a thorough review of FCPS science curriculum
- Review current guidance to FCPS science teachers to ensure all concepts are taught in the safest possible manner and setting
- Require science safety updates for all FCPS high school science teachers to commence immediately, and all FCPS science teachers will be required to complete by the end of the semester
Local media coverage of the Woodson fire:
- WTOP: Fire at Woodson H.S. injures 6 (Oct. 30), Experts advocate changes after Woodson H.S. chemistry class accident (Nov. 1), 3 students return to school after Woodson chemistry fire (Nov. 4)
- WUSA: Student injured in Woodson HS fire needs surgery, ‘will recover’ (Oct. 31)
- Fox 5 DC: 5 W.T. Woodson HS students, teacher injured in chemistry lab fire (Oct. 31)
- NBC 4 Washington: Chemistry experiment sparked explosion in Va. high school that hurt students (Oct. 30), Woodson students back in class after chem lab fire (Nov. 4), American Chemistry Society warns against some classroom experiments (Nov. 4)
- Washington Post: 6 injured in chemistry classroom fire at Woodson High in Fairfax (Oct. 30), School system bans open-flame science experiments after accident (Nov. 2), High school chemistry lab fire prompts warnings for science teachers (Oct. 5)
- WJLA ABC 7: Woodson High School students head back to school after fire (Nov. 4, with text of principal email)
- Chemjobber: Rainbow flame incident injures 5 students in Virginia
- reddit: in r/chemistry, Five injured in chemistry classroom fire at Woodson High School in Fairfax and in r/nova, Five injured (2 very seriously) in chem lab fire at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax
CSB’s video PSA, featuring Calais Weber, who suffered burns over 50% of her body in 2006 from a fire that ignited when her teacher poured methanol onto a flame test flame.