by BJ Condike
“Remember! No one starts their experiment until I check your apparatus! This is a dangerous procedure, and we don’t want any accidents.”
Greg the teaching assistant yelled his instructions across the chemistry lab. It was a four-hour lab class, but the experiment we were conducting would take much longer than that—on a Friday afternoon, no less. Our professor didn’t care about such things.
“Have you got this, Muriel?” I said.
“Yes, Bill, I’ve got it,” she said. “I don’t know what the big deal is—the prof explained it in his lecture.”
Muriel’s workstation was next to mine. Ever since freshman year when she blew up the inorganics lab, I had kept a wary eye on her. We were seniors now, so she should have been okay, but she tended to be too rigid about instructions.
At this point, we all should have been competent in a laboratory setting. Some of us had more of a talent for lab work while others were more book smart. Muriel was of the book smart variety. With only thirteen chemistry majors surviving from a starting class of over 200, however, none of us was totally dumb.
The equipment we were assembling involved an array of complex glassware I had never used before. Parts of it resisted my efforts, and some of the instructions seemed illogical.
Greg strolled up to me and eyeballed my apparatus. “How’re you coming along, Bill?”
“I’m having trouble with the stirrer. It keeps hitting the bottom of the flask.”
“There’s an adjustment on the shaft—there,” he said, and pointed. “That will make it shorter.”
“Ah! I see it now. Thanks.” I liked Greg, but wasn’t always sure of his advice. After all, he was the one in charge of the lab when Muriel had her explosion. I tried to be diplomatic with my next question.
“Greg, could you explain something? I don’t get why the steam line attaches to the short tube.”
“Just do it the way I said.”
“But the physics are all wrong. If you do it your way, you’ll pressurize the chamber with the short tube, and force the reaction fluid out the long tube.”
“Then it’s a good thing this is an advanced organic chemistry lab, and not a physics lab,” Greg said. “When you open the stopcock on the separatory funnel, the steam will bubble up through the acid and relieve the pressure.”
I started waving my arms. “That’s ridiculous! The acid is too dense and viscous. It will prevent the steam from escaping. This is supposed to be a steam-catalyzed reaction. Shouldn’t the steam bubble through the reaction vessel?”
“It will work just as well this way. The steam will heat the acid, and that in turn will heat the reaction vessel. Trust me.” I was still sputtering as Greg moved along to examine Muriel’s setup.
I muttered to myself as I continued with preparations. I charged the round bottom flask with the reaction mix, and cautiously filled the separatory funnel with concentrated sulfuric acid.
By then Greg had left Muriel, and moved on to the next student.
“What about it, Muriel?” I said. “What do you think?” I hated to get in the middle, but I could see a disaster in the making.
“I think it’s fine,” she said. “Greg must know what he’s doing—he’s a grad student, isn’t he?”
“Remember the last time you listened to him…”
“That was different. I was only a freshman, and Greg had himself just graduated.”
“You were incredibly lucky you didn’t get hurt. If you hadn’t just stepped away from the reaction…”
“But I didn’t get hurt, did I?”
“No, but it took them a whole year to repair the damage. They had to move our classes into the basement.”
“Just chill, Bill. Everything will be fine.”
“No, it won’t, Muriel. If you connect the steam like he says, you’ll be making a big mistake.”
She pooh-poohed me with a wave of her hand and turned back to her workstation.
I could tell some of the other students thought like I did. Two of them had spirited discussions with the grad student, and several others shook their heads.
Greg wouldn’t let the class continue until he approved the configuration on everyone’s apparatus. The students were anxious to finish up and begin their weekend. In the end, the others gave in, and we all set up our experiments like Greg instructed.
“Okay, everyone. Activate your stirrers. Start adding your H2SO4.”
We did as he directed. Concentrated sulfuric acid has the consistency of corn syrup. As the thick acid dripped into the flask, it created striations in the reaction fluid, which the rotating stirring paddle dissipated. Adding the concentrated acid to the aqueous mixture generated a lot of heat, making the flask too hot to touch. The addition of steam to the chamber could only make the contents hotter.
“Time to turn on your steam!” he called.
Most of the students seemed unsure, and twiddled with their setups without turning their steam valves. The two students who had argued with Greg had surreptitiously switched their steam connections to the long tubes before turning their steam on, obviously convinced the grad student had been wrong. I stalled, busying myself by writing in my notebook.
Out of the corner of my eye I spied Muriel reach for her steam valve.
“Muriel, why don’t you wait? Let someone else try it first.”
“I don’t want to wait. I have a date tonight, and I don’t want to be here any later than I have to.” She reached for the spigot on the steam valve.
“Don’t do it, Muriel!”
Ignoring me, she twisted the handle.
I took two steps away and turned my back to her.
Nothing happened at first. Then Muriel screamed.
I turned around, and there she stood, hands over her face, shrieking under a spraying shower of hot sulfuric acid.
Two other girls added their screams to Muriel’s, while the boys shouted and milled about.
I froze at first, but Muriel’s cries roused me to action. I ran over and grabbed the screeching coed by the elbows and dragged her away from the hazardous chemical spray. A thousand searing pinpricks burned my face, head, and hands. I manhandled her to the emergency shower station and pulled the chain to open the valve. Twenty gallons per minute of cold water drenched us in just a few seconds.
Ice cold water. The deluge nearly knocked us to the floor. I held Muriel up until we were thoroughly soaked, and we stumbled away from the shower.
Another student grabbed a couple of fire blankets and wrapped them around us. Someone pulled the fire alarm. The entire chemistry building evacuated into the frigid January air. Muriel’s hair froze into long brown icicles. The EMTs came and treated us for acid burns and fed us hot coffee.
Muriel couldn’t stop shaking. I tried to calm her down, but when I looked at her face I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“You look like an albino raccoon with measles,” I said. Little red dots from the acid droplets peppered her face and neck—all except where the safety goggles had afforded protection from the hot sulfuric rain.
She sniffled and gave a wan smile. “Thanks, Bill, for saving me. You were the only one who kept their head and knew what to do.” She pointed at my face. “I guess we make quite a pair,” she said, and we both laughed until our sides hurt.
We discovered later that Greg had been the one who pulled the fire alarm. The chemistry department removed him from laboratory supervision, and demoted him to cleaning the supply room.
Muriel missed her date. Our clothes were soaked, and perforated with dozens of pinholes where the acid had burned through. We had learned early on never to wear good clothes in the lab anyway, so they were no great loss. I invited her to my place to change, as it was closer. We had fun examining our punctured clothes, and the burn patterns on our skin. We had more fun before we put fresh clothes on.
After a time, the marks from the acid burns disappeared.
That spring the thirteen chemistry majors all graduated without incident. Muriel and I married three months later. She returned to school in the fall as a student in the university’s doctoral program, supervising lab sections. Greg eventually received his Ph.D. and left, but we never heard of him again.
I became an EMT specializing in chemical accidents. So far I haven’t had to respond to an incident at the university laboratories. But then again, it’s only Muriel’s first year.
Writers’ workshop and writing group