The Biology Bus, Holiday Labs, and the Emergency Fire Blanket

It is the Crocus Vacation but several students have requested that we have a lab day so they can work on their internal assessments.  Two of the six students happen to be my own so, of course, I drive them in with me.  Another student is from our neighborhood and another lives on the way.  So, because we are part of a very small school with a family environment, we pick everyone up and I’m feeling very much like I’m driving “The Biology Bus” on the way to the school. Two other students meet us at the school.

We all enter the chilled classroom and within minutes there is a buzz of activity as everyone sets up his or her lab.  I am happy to be there with them and once again feed on their energy and enthusiasm.  The environment is considerably more relaxed considering that it’s a holiday week.  At one point the students whip out some marshmallows and roast them over a Bunsen burner while they are waiting on their experiments.  OK.  It’s a bit “on the edge” but I let it slide as they are so responsible and they’re working hard on their experiments.  I turn back to my work.

Suddenly, I hear an urgent, “Mom…..Mom…..Mom, what do we do about this fire” from behind me.   I swivel around in my chair to view my son with his outstretched hands motioning to a gigantic flame on the lab bench. The flame is spreading across the bench, enveloping the gas and electrical outlets.  I have the immediate thought, “This is a huge fire that we might not be able to contain”.  I push the thoughts of requiring the fire department aside as I do what initially needs to happen.  The students have, wisely, already turned off the gas.  It is an alcohol fire (spontaneous combustion of ethanol) and we opt for the fire blanket rather than the CO2 fire extinguisher.  Together we unfold the blanket and drape it over the monstrous flames.  We press down on the blanket and feel the heat beneath.  My son lifts a corner and observes flames licking at the blankets’ edge.  “Don’t lift it.  Don’t lift it,” he advises.  So, we let the blanket do its work of smothering the fire.  An awful stench fills the room, the result of the melted rubber tubing connecting the Bunsen burner to the gas outlet.  Near the blanket, a bottle of methylene blue sits strangely deformed from the heat it’s been exposed to.  It’s a surreal moment as I look at the aftermath of the event and the relief replacing the shocked looks on my students’ faces.

I learn that a student had taken his experiment from the fume hood (!-what !) to the Bunsen Burner, attempted to pour the alcohol into a larger beaker, experienced the spontaneous combustion of the alcohol as it was being poured, and proceeded to drop the beaker.  The result was the rapid spreading and growth of the flame.

Fortunately, all are safe, no major damage has occurred, and we are able to easily erupt into laughter as the students reenact the near disaster, my son’s persistent summoning of me, and my apparent slow-motion response. 

The students finish up their experiments and clean up the lab while I collect the turtle and his supplies to come home with me for the school break.  We work together to place the chairs on the tabletops with hopes that the cleaners will do a more thorough cleaning of the floor. The students perform a final check on ongoing experiments.  I turn off the lights and we exit the Biology room, the 3rd floor, and the school itself.  The magic school bus then begins its ride home, dropping students off at their destinations and wishing them a happy holiday.