The fire that broke out in the chemical laboratory of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Trombay, Mumbai, on Tuesday, and the circumstances in which the two researchers met their end were a “mystery,” Tulsi Mukherjee, director, Chemistry Group, BARC, told The Hindu on phone on Thursday.
Two research students, Umang Singh of Mumbai and Partha Bag of Kolkata died in the fire that gutted the laboratory. Dr. Mukherjee said although people were present in the corridor none heard any screams whatsoever. “The door was ajar,” he pointed out.
“Initially, there were three people in the lab — a scientist and the two students. However, the scientist stepped out and was not present when the incident took place. No one heard any shouts for help. That’s the biggest mystery,” Dr. Mukherjee remarked.
“It’s a little baffling. We don’t know the trigger yet. It’s too early to say anything. There is no clear-cut inventory available on what was there in the room, as everything was taken out [for renovation work]. The bottles are shattered, so we can’t read the labels. The lab was not supposed to have many chemicals [anyway] as it mostly had analytical instruments like spectrophotometers,” S.K. Malhotra, spokesperson, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) told The Hindu on the phone. He said the chemical laboratory was about 5 metres in length and 4 metres in width.
According to Dr. Mukherjee, there were “non-inflammable chemicals” in the lab. While each lab stored some amount of inflammable chemicals for experimentation, their quantity was so less that they could not have caused such a fire. “There was no explosive [material] in the laboratory. And in the entire building there was no explosive work going on,” he said.
The Chemistry Group director also said there was a nitrogen gas cylinder and a very small carbon dioxide cylinder in the lab, which were both found to be “intact.” Moreover, “nitrogen is an inert gas,” he added.
The painting work in the laboratory was completed on Friday last. “Thereafter, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, were holidays. On Tuesday, the students were trying to put things in order. They were not carrying out experiments,” Dr. Mukherjee said.
Ruling out the possibility of the role played by turpentine, used in paints, he said, “Everything was cleared after the painting was over. A supervisor submits a report after ensuring that things were cleared after the work.” When asked, Dr. Mukherjee said he received the clearance report from the supervisor.
Meanwhile, the local police, BARC’s Safety Council and the fire brigades of BARC and Mumbai’s Fire department are investigating the incident. Dr. Mukherjee said the police paid several visits to the Centre on Thursday. They also got sniffer dogs, who couldn’t detect anything.
While there are several theories doing the rounds, Dr. Mukherjee, struck off the possibility of “foul play.” “We are ruling out sabotage,” he stated.
The investigating agencies are primarily waiting for the results of forensic tests. Remnants of the burnt laboratory and parts of the dead bodies have been sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL), the police said. The report is expected in 10 days.
Umang’s friends said there was a fire a week before this incident, which the researcher had doused with some injury to his hand. Commenting on the previous incident, Dr. Mukherjee said, “Umang is a heroic boy. He just took the cylinder. However, we discussed it with the Safety Council and this was a non-event. Our motto is to ensure that all the labs are safe.”
By Wednesday night, the police handed over the bodies of Umang and Partha to their families. Umang was cremated the same night, while Partha was cremated on Thursday, after his parents arrived from Kolkata.
Some confusion arose at the hospital, when it was found that the death certificates were not stamped. The police had to intervene to sort the matter out, much to the exasperation of the relatives..