News

Paly teacher burned in science-experiment accident

Injuries reportedly non-life threatening

A Palo Alto High School teacher suffered first- and second-degree burns after a fire broke out during a science experiment on Wednesday morning, the Palo Alto Fire Department said.

The fire department responded to a report of the incident at 11:23 a.m. Wednesday. The patient, a female chemistry teacher who has not been identified, suffered first- and second-degree burns to approximately 18 percent of her body, but the injuries were reported to be non-life threatening, according to Battalion Chief Kevin McNally.

A student in the class, Skylar Burris, said her teacher was conducting an experiment with methane -- filling an empty milk carton with methane so that it would launch off the edge of the desk when the gas escaped -- when there was suddenly a "giant eruption of flames." The teacher ran to a shower in the classroom, the student said.

The teacher was transported to a burn unit in the area for treatment, according to McNally.

There were no injuries to Paly students, and there was minimal damage to the classroom -- only burned paper and books that were on a desk, McNally said in a press release. The student said some backpacks and binders were burned. The fire was out before Palo Alto Fire units arrived.

The cause of the accident is still under investigation, McNally said.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

Comments

21 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 1, 2015 at 5:08 pm

:-( How awful for everyone. Get well soon.


14 people like this
Posted by KB
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 1, 2015 at 9:37 pm

My Paly student daughter says that one student did get burned, but not seriously enough to go to the hospital.

Apparently the teacher leaned in close to a chemical mixture to see why it wasn't reacting, and of course at that moment the reaction happened, explosively. She said it was quite a large explosion, and that the teacher was seriously burned. Here's hoping she recovers quickly.


39 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 1, 2015 at 11:15 pm

Can we do anything as a community to support this teacher and her family right now? This is going to be a difficult and long journey. Could the PTA set up a Munchery account or something similar we could all donate to so the family could have real meals (not restaurant take out) delivered whenever they need them for a long while, and at least have one less thing to worry about? Could perhaps someone at the school we all know is reliable do this, so we could know the donations were going to the teacher while still respecting public privacy?


4 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Apr 1, 2015 at 11:59 pm

Alphonso is a registered user.

Hope she gets better quickly - I understand she had a bad burn (second degree) on a wrist and first degree burns in other areas. First degree burns generally heal in about a week.


6 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 2, 2015 at 7:14 am

The teacher's name has been disclosed on tv and all the kids know about this. The rumor mill at school made my own kid think it was April Fools prank, but now it has been confirmed.

I have full sympathy for the teacher as we all make mistakes and accidents do happen. [Portion removed.]


53 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Apr 2, 2015 at 7:47 am

Alphonso is a registered user.

Yes, and perhaps she should get an award for her reactions - under duress she did exactly what she was supposed to do by dousing the fire, protecting her students, minimizing damage and remaining calm.


25 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 2, 2015 at 8:58 am

[Portion removed due to deletion of referenced comment.] She's a new teacher this year at her first job. Accidents do happen - no wonder PAUSD students are stressed when we have parents who have the gall to twist the knife. Some things just don't need to be said. "Sure, you were sick with the flu, but you should gave planned ahead and studied earlier and you would have gotten a better grade." Alphonso is on point.


19 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 2, 2015 at 9:06 am

[Portion removed.]

It is really great that the methanol(?) bottle was not ignited and that the water bottle was plastic or it could have been much worse. I am so glad injuries were minor and hope all the best for this teacher. It is easy to place blame in hindsight and hopefully this will not be a repeated experiment.

Things happen fast with fire so every precaution should be in place. Proper ventilation, appropriate protective clothing, children a safe distance back, static electricity should be considered in an enclosed room. No free gas in classrooms with open flames. I have enough to worry about. I am sorry though, it is easy to make a mistake and this teacher I am sure was trying to motivate her kids and had all the best intentions.


4 people like this
Posted by comment
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 2, 2015 at 9:32 am

outsider,
Well, there's one problem that is sure to be hushed up or dismissed. We have perpetual issues with ventilation underperforming and not being monitored properly on an ongoing basis.


57 people like this
Posted by wonderful teacher
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 2, 2015 at 9:57 am

My son was in the class where this happened and needed to put out a small fire on his backpack, which was in the front row. The chemistry teacher is the most wonderful, kind, caring person who goes out of her way to motivate and encourage all of her students. We are thankful that she was able to react calmly and quickly under duress and hope the very best for a full and speedy recovery.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 2, 2015 at 10:35 am

Yikes. Certainly a teachable moment for everyone involved. And if it's like workplace incidents that I've seen, there will be an OSHA investigation and review of training.

In the old days I think we had low pressure methane (natural gas) nozzles plumbed into the workbenches for Bunsen burners or whatever, but my high school memories have become hazy. The article's sketchy description of the intended experiment has piqued my curiosity.

Surely it could not have involved igniting a milk carton full of methane. Say it's a just quart milk carton, that's about 1/24 of a mole, and you can look up that burning a mole of CH4 will release 800 kilojoules, so 1/24th is still 33 kilojoules. That's a lot of joules. I don't know how fast the flame-front moves, but if it combusted in 1/10 of a second, then we're looking at a momentary one-third of a megawatt. What did I do wrong?


9 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 2, 2015 at 10:53 am

@Paly Parent -- I can only hope you are not as quick to judge your children or other teachers. To question her qualifications when you know so little about what happened makes no sense whatsoever. I agree with @Mom, your comment was rude and I can only hope an apology is forthcoming. By all accounts this teacher acted quickly and professionally; someone who can stay calm and protect their students is exactly the kind of person we want teaching our children.


11 people like this
Posted by Sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 2, 2015 at 11:02 am

My prayers and hope she will recover quickly

Regards


2 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 2, 2015 at 11:07 am

It seems I appeared rude and owe an apology, I will apologize if I was rude, it was unintentional.

I am completely unaware of what happened since I was not in the classroom. With any accident at school, particularly in a science classroom, I think it is important to discover what happened and why. Perhaps the choice of the word "capability" was not the right word, but I definitely feel that questions should be asked about this science experiment.

I am pleased that the teacher managed to stay calm and that no students were hurt. I am sorry that she has had to be hospitalized and hope she recovers fully.

I think that more information about this accident should be issued and also what changes are implemented to ensure that this does not occur again. Accidents of course are not planned, but they do have a cause. We can all make mistakes and unfortunately a mistake of some description happened here. I hope that safeguards are put in place to prevent a repeat.


23 people like this
Posted by Wishing her well.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 2, 2015 at 11:10 am

Wishing her a speedy recovery. Let's stop the ill-informed criticism now, please. We can't possibly know exactly what happened from this report. A beloved teacher was hurt. Let's wish her well.


6 people like this
Posted by A Noun Ea Mus
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 2, 2015 at 11:20 am

For Palo Alto perhaps the concept of "in every crisis lurks opportunity" has been upgraded (of course) to "for in every disaster, for every death or injury, for every event lurking under the sun lays also an opportunity to assume an uber position and criticize and pontificate from on high".....all with the best of intentions and motivations of course.


Like this comment
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2015 at 11:21 am

Sparty is a registered user.

If it is true that a student's backpack caught on fire, sounds like a serious mistake was made


Like this comment
Posted by A Noun Ea Mus
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 2, 2015 at 11:21 am

[Post removed.]


13 people like this
Posted by Martha G.
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 2, 2015 at 11:23 am

I hope she has a speedy and pain-free recovery.


Like this comment
Posted by outsider
a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2015 at 3:56 pm

outsider is a registered user.

[Post removed; unverifiable assertions]


9 people like this
Posted by Andrew Vargha
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 2, 2015 at 6:50 pm

Andrew Vargha is a registered user.

To clarify, since the article has some inaccuracies: the experiment was with ethanol, and was supposed to be similar to this (but obviously on a much smaller scale)

Web Link

It didn't appear to me that the explosion happened during the experiment. It seemed to me like a freak accident

And yes, the situation was handled perfectly by the teacher, who quickly ran to the shower and then stopped the flames of the before-mentioned book and various papers. She also made sure everyone was OK and quickly sent someone to get help. For a scary situation, she certainly helped make it less stressful by not giving any indication that she was in pain, I was surprised when I learned that she had second degree burns.

She's very respectful and will help me when I'm having trouble understanding something. I thank her for handling this situation so well!


Like this comment
Posted by outsider
a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2015 at 8:14 pm

outsider is a registered user.

andrew, always expect an explosion when free gas is lit.


1 person likes this
Posted by rick
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 2, 2015 at 9:07 pm

rick is a registered user.

@Andrew, thank you for the educational video link. Note the safety glasses and fire extinguisher. However it was disturbing to see the ladies [sic] cower in the background.


Like this comment
Posted by Andrew Vargha
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 2, 2015 at 10:58 pm

Andrew Vargha is a registered user.

Just to make this clear - the explosion didn't happen when the teacher was attempting to make the bottle fly off the desk.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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