Faulty test tube blamed for OHS science class blast

By Jay Braman Jr.
The blast that occurred at the Onteora High School last Tuesday came as a surprise to everyone, but apparently to no one more than Donald Bucher. Bucher, a Phoenicia resident, is the veteran science teacher who was conducting an experiment with the chemical potassium chlorate when the accident occurred. Although he has safely done the same experiment dozens of times before, on Tuesday something went wrong, causing an explosion that broke a window in the classroom and injured Bucher and six students.
The day after the accident, Bucher was resting at home due to wounds sustained in the blast, said District Superintendent Dr. Leslie Ford, and the cause for the explosion remains a mystery. An investigation will begin shortly.
“We still don’t know what happened,” Ford said. “But we will debrief Mr. Bucher when he is well enough to return.”
Ford added that a small piece of glass punctured Bucher’s arm and cut an artery.
“He was bleeding quite a lot,” she said.
Several calls to Bucher’s home were not answered.
Although it remains unclear what caused the blast, there is speculation that a faulty test tube was to blame.
The blast occurred when Bucher dropped a stick of gum into a test tube containing the chemical potassium chlorate.
Ford said school officials reviewed the lesson plan and concluded that the experiment was not only one that Bucher has done before, but it is also a standard high school classroom experiment. It also appears that Bucher followed the proper procedure when he executed the steps of the experiment she said.
“The goal of the experiment was to determine the amount of oxygen in the potassium chlorate,” Ford said.
Another possibility is the chemical itself may have been compromised, but at this time there are no plans to conduct an analysis of the stock. All the remaining potassium chlorate was removed from the classroom, bagged up, and locked in a secure location elsewhere in the school by Doctor Michael O’Rourke of the Risk Management Department of Ulster County BOCES.
O’Rourke said that the chemical awaits proper disposal while the school’s chemical stock is checked to see if any other chemicals need to be disposed.
According to a Web site co-maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration potassium chlorate is a white crystalline solid. It is used in matches, explosives, gunpowder and fireworks, as a disinfectant, and an oxidizing agent. It forms a very flammable mixture with combustible materials. The mixture may be explosive if combustible material is very finely divided. It may be ignited by friction and contact with strong sulfuric acid may cause fires or explosions. It may spontaneously decompose and ignite when mixed with ammonium salts and may explode under prolonged exposure to heat or fire.