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Dickinson State chemistry lab professor recovers after explosion

Police and an ambulance are shown outside of Murphy Hall at Dickinson State University after students and staff were evacuated after an incident in the chemistry lab. Photo by Kalsey Stults / Forum News Service file photo.

DICKINSON, N.D.—Earlier this month a small explosion shook the Dickinson State University community.

The campus is regaining normalcy without one of their own as Dr. Ken Pierce recovers from his injuries sustained in the chemistry lab explosion on Oct. 4.

DSU President Thomas Mitzel said that the college is missing one of their "family members" until his hopeful return for the spring semester.

"Dr. Pierce is quite beloved by the faculty, by the staff and by the students," Mitzel said. "We want nothing more than to see him have a full recovery and get back to being an active part of the family again."

Friday, Mitzel met with his cabinet members along with the director of emergency management, the director of facility operations and the chair of the department of natural sciences to review the timeline of events.

On Oct. 4 at 3:25 p.m. Pierce was conducting a chemistry demonstration in room 206 of Murphy Hall when the demonstration went awry.

He was demonstrating flash powder—a compound made from hydrogen peroxide and acetone—for five students. After the two compounds were mixed and sat for a couple of hours to dry they then become a powder.

During the first experiment Pierce noticed a small amount of powder in the mixture, and when he ignited the powder it flashed but the clump of powder combusted—which he thought was unusual but continued.

He then conducted two more experiments without incident, but before the fourth experiment Pierce noted small clumps of powder in the mixture.

Pierce then poured in mortar and pestle to grind them up, but when he started to grind the mixture, it exploded.

Pierce suffered non-life threatening injuries and was transported to CHI St. Alexius Hospital in Dickinson before being transferred to Bismarck for surgery.

Marie Moe, DSU executive director communications and public affairs, said that Pierce has asked to keep his injuries private.

"He is comfortable with us saying that he is home recovering and doing well," she said.

Pierce was wearing personal protective equipment including goggles and students had been tested on safety protocol at the beginning of the semester.

None of the five students were injured but three students indicated they were experiencing ringing in their ears and were evaluated and released by EMS on scene.

Dickinson Fire Department, Dickinson Police Department and DSU Security officers were on scene and evacuated the building within minutes after the incident.

Mitzel said that he was proud of the way everyone worked together toward a common purpose of ensuring safety after the incident.

"You always wonder, and you always hope people are able to work together, and you find out when you have an emergency like this that they really did," he said. "You always hate to have any kind of incident, but when you do, the fact that people can work together in that nice of a fashion is powerful."

When Mitzel met with faculty to debrief on the situation Friday, two items were identified to be further examined.

The performance of the Assurance Notification Management notification system's performance will be reviewed further with the state of North Dakota working with the vendor, Sungard, to troubleshoot the application.

Originally the notification system wasn't disbursing the notification to evacuate so the notice was sent using other means including the website and social media.

Mitzel also asked for the director of emergency management to host mock drills for the emergency management team to practice each semester.

Mitzel said that the incident also shows how strongly people care for Pierce.

"The outpouring of love, good feelings and generosity towards him is reflection of how he has always treated everybody," Mitzel said. "I think you are always treated by others how you treat them, and this goes a long way in showing how much everybody cares for each other here."

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