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Report: Missteps, equipment problems part of botched Beacon chemistry experiment

Scientific missteps, a lack of safety equipment, and a jammed fire extinguisher all factored into a grim incident that left two high school students with severe burns following a botched chemistry experiment earlier this year, an investigation has found.

The details came out of a nearly six-month probe by the Special Commissioner of Investigation, which followed the Jan. 2 accident at Beacon High School, a highly-selective public school in Manhattan. The incident has led to the removal of a teacher and a citywide ban on the popular but dangerous “rainbow” experiment.

The report was based on interviews with 10 students in the class at the time, as well as several school staff members who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the explosion. They described a “fire ball” that shot across the room when the teacher, Anna Poole, “poured a gallon jug of methanol” into a petri dish with a dying flame. The result was a chaotic scene in which one of the students was described as looking “like a victim on a battlefield.”

The student, a 16-year-old male, sustained second and third-degree burns to his neck, face and torso that left him in critical condition. The second victim, a 16-year-old female, received first degree burns on her forearm.

Investigators highlighted a few ways that the accident could have been prevented, or how the students’ injuries might have been mitigated. It pointed out a New York Times report that found the demonstration’s dangers were known in other parts of the country and that a federal safety agency had released a warning video weeks prior to the incident.

Poole’s biggest error was using far more methanol than the experiment called for, a teacher at the school told investigators. And though the room where the accident happened was designed specifically for science experiments, students weren’t wearing any protective clothing or eyewear.

After the explosion, both a student and Poole were unable to unclip a nearby fire extinguisher. It was only after Poole left and returned with another teacher that a fire extinguisher and blanket could be used on the student.

Poole, who had a master’s degree in chemistry and previously taught Advanced Placement chemistry at Bronx Science, was described as being “in shock” and “much shaken.” She declined to speak with investigators but submitted a written statement through her lawyer.

In a statement, Department of Education spokesman David Pena said Poole remained “reassigned” while officials review the report.

“Student safety is of the utmost importance to the Department,” Pena said.