Late in the afternoon on February 10, a fire broke out on the third floor of the University of St. Andrews’s Biomedical Science Building in a chemistry lab. Late in the night, a team of 30 firefighters had extinguished the blaze that had scorched a relatively small part of the building, and no one was hurt.
While the fire itself only affected a handful of labs, it took six hours and thousands of gallons of water to bring the blaze under control, says David Evans, a virologist at the University of St. Andrews and director of the complex that includes the Biomedical Science Building. “The water damage is very extensive,” he says, displacing the researchers who work there and cutting off access to specialized facilities, including shared cell culture rooms.
Right now, approximately 125 staff members and scientists who work in the building’s offices and roughly 10 research labs are waiting as contractors handle the mess and structural engineers assess the building’s safety, according to Evans. It’s unclear how long it will take for the researchers to return to their benches, but a news report from the University of St. Andrews suggests a year or even longer. “We don’t know how long it will be until the building is refitted and it will undoubtedly need pretty extensive refitting,” says Evans.
As work on the building proceeds, colleagues around campus, the UK, and the world have been “phenomenally generous,” says Evans. Researchers in adjacent buildings have made space for their displaced neighbors while some from St. Andrews are traveling to institutes in other countries where they can continue their work. “It’s a great shame it takes a disaster,” says Evans. “It really brings out the best in people.”
While some scientists have undoubtedly lost valuable reagents or cultures, in the days after the fire, researchers managed to salvage a great deal from the building, according to Evans. A group entered the dark and flooded building with flashlights to haul out some 50 or 60 refrigerators and freezers. Evans estimates that they may have saved around 90 percent of the stored reagents and biological material. “That was an enormous boost to the people who had thought they had lost everything,” he says.
In recalling the night of the fire, Evans says that many things were handled according to plans that were drawn up in preparation for a major fire. He stresses the importance of being prepared, and sees a few other lessons emerging from the blaze.
For instance, it would have really helped to have a complete list of the equipment and their precise locations. “It would have saved a lot of grief,” says Evans, as they are now working to collect that information. And while much of the digital data were backed up, some weren’t or were backed up on devices inside the building. “I think we will get it all back, but it’s maybe not quite as fast as we would like, and off-site backup is clearly preferable,” he says, noting that those with data off-site could basically get back to work immediately. Some are now without other records, lab notebooks for instance, because they can’t retrieve them from the building, but those with digital copies know they haven’t lost that information.
A full investigation is ongoing into the source of the blaze. “It was a laboratory accident,” says Evans. “We don’t know what caused the ignition, so to speak.”