Freshman Cleared In Explosion Scare
The Administrative Board decided yesterday not to consider action against Phillip J. Atkinson '82 for keeping nitroglycerine in the Science Center, sources close to the inquiry said yesterday.
University officials ordered the evacuation of the Science Center Friday after they discovered between 100 and 300 milliliters of nitroglycerine in a laboratory in the building's basement.
Atkinson had synthesized and stored the liquid explosive in an unsupervised experiment in the prep room behind the lecture halls, Harvard officials said yesterday.
An explosion of 250 milliliters of pure nitroglycerine "would leave a mediumsized room in an absolute shambles" and could have endangered people in the prep room and students taking exams in the adjoining lecture halls, George B. Kistiakowsky, Lawrence Professor of Chemistry Emeritus and an explosives expert, said Monday.
Bennie R. Ware, associate professor of chemistry and Atkinson's instructor in Natural Sciences 3, "Introduction to Chemistry," learned of the use of nitroglycerine Friday and alerted Science Center officials to the danger.
Joseph A. O'Keefe, state fire marshal, in consultation with Ronald E. Vanelli '41, director of the Science Center, and Cambridge fire officials ordered the building evacuated at 11:40 a.m. They also summoned State Department of Public Safety (DPS) authorities to remove the substance.
Francis Hankard, assistant chief of the chemical laboratory in the DPS, neutralized the nitroglycerine with ethyl alcohol, and Joseph Sainato, a state explosives technician, removed the diluted solution from the building at 2:50 p.m., Vanelli said.
The evacuation forced students in Biology 15, "Cell Biology," and Psychology and Social Relations 1060, "Motivation and Action," and 1705, "Psychology of the Human Life Cycle," to leave the Science Center about 30 minutes before the scheduled completion of their exams. Afternoon tests were relocated.
Students in the three courses will be allowed to take make-up exams in April or have their exams graded with the missed half hour taken into consideration, but they may not see their grades and then decide to take the make-up, Margaret Law, Registrar for the Faculty, said Monday.
Atkinson first produced most of the chemical outside of the Science Center--some of it in his dormitory, Massachusetts Hall, where he had been conducting experiments all semester, Vanelli said.
W.C. Burriss Young '55, associate dean of freshmen and Atkinson's proctor, said he told the student to transport the chemicals to the Science Center at least a week before Friday's evacuation.
Atkinson had no comment yesterday on the situation.
"He was asked to get all of the stuff he had--all the paraphenalia--to the Science Center, where those things are more appropriate," Young said yesterday.
However, Young said he did not realize the substance was nitroglycerine.
I See Nothing
"I am very, very ignorant of chemicals," Young said.
In a meeting last December with Donald J. Ciapenelli, director of the chemical laboratories, Atkinson asked for space to pursue his "hobby in pyrotechnics" and showed Ciapenelli a list of chemicals he was using but did not mention nitroglycerine, Ciapenelli said yesterday.
Ciapenelli contacted Vanelli, who told a prep room employee that if space was available, Atkinson could store his chemicals and conduct further experiments there, John B. Mathers, coordinator of lecture services and director of the prep room, said yesterday.
On four occasions, Atkinson manufactured up to 11 milliliters of nitroglycerine in the prep room, Vanelli said he learned after the evacuation.
The project was "not scrutinized as carefully as possible," Mathers said Friday, adding that "communications between the director's office and here were not very clear."
"When you do work in the Science Center we want some responsible people sponsoring you," Vanelli said. But he added, "I don't think anybody had really given him approval."
Reason to Worry
Atkinson's experiments were "not criminally or maliciously inspired," but "if someone had diligently researched his list of chemicals, they would have been concerned," O'Keefe said.
O'Keefe added that the state police would not charge Atkinson, but they would arrest him if he repeated the experiments.
A freshman in Massachusetts Hall, who asked not to be named, said Monday she occasionally felt jolts and heard explosions at night coming from Atkinson's room. She added that some students had complained about noxious fumes in the halls. Another student said Monday that Atkinson's "activities have not caused a furor in Mass Hall."
Kistiakowsky said Monday that nitroglycerine "is regarded as one of the most dangerous high explosives." But he added, "When I was still a high school kid I also made a little nitroglycerine. When my mother found out, she wouldn't let me experiment in the house anymore.