SMOKE RISES



SMOKE RISES

Published on October 1, 2019

The KBT fire wiped out years of research. Scientists in the building say it could have been avoided.

It started in the basement.

Unnatural flames spread through the building’s electrical transformer, cutting off power to priceless biological specimens. Kline Biology Tower would soon go dark for days.

Floors above, the skyscraper’s dim, cramped hallways were unusually calm. On that Sunday afternoon in February, Michael Bond GRD ’22 had just finished grading papers for Biology 103 on the fourth floor when he decided to check on his experiment. 

He opened a freezing liquid nitrogen tank and, through his safety goggles, saw a worried colleague approach. “There’s a fire,” Bond remembered him saying. “We have to leave.” But Bond didn’t hear any alarms, and since drills were common in the aging skyscraper, it was hard to believe this wasn’t another false alarm. As he grabbed his coat and backpack, Bond figured he’d be back soon. 

He and other researchers gathered in front of a nearby building. When he looked back at the tower, he could see a plume of black smoke emerging from a grate next to it. The acrid stench of charred electrical equipment was overpowering, he wrote in an email to the News. He hoped the fire wasn’t serious. He’d left the tank open.

Firefighters arrived. They evacuated researchers and professors who were still in the building. Bond was startled to learn that until firefighters entered their labs, many scientists weren’t aware of the embers spreading in the basement at all. He would not be able to turn off his nitrogen tank; the fire department had closed the building.

The next time he’d be in his lab, it would be dark, and his lab’s freezers — which stored valuable animal cells and reagents at temperatures far below freezing  — would be warming.

Other specimens across the skyscraper were in jeopardy that night, too. A weeklong power outage — caused by the blaze — would eventually cause millions of dollars in damage.

But it all could have been prevented. Several scientists who worked in the building said they had concerns about the tower’s safety measures and lack of emergency power, but that the University failed to address them.

Marisa Peryer

“Yale never will”

From her ninth-floor lab in KBT, Nadya Dimitrova could see the entire city of New Haven; to the south, the Atlantic Ocean; the seemingly endless mass of green trees stretching in nearly every other direction.

The professor has since moved into the new Yale Science Building. But she misses her old view.

“KBT was a fantastic building,” she said. “But for biomedical research — where you need proper temperature control, airflow and other support — it was absolutely inappropriate.”

Designed in the mid-1960s by renowned modernist architect and Nazi sympathizer Philip Johnson, the tower was intended to command New Haven’s skyline and contrast with Yale’s prevailing Gothic Revival aesthetic. It was a monument to Yale’s scientific achievement and, briefly, the city’s tallest building. 

According to professor Joel Rosenbaum, who has been working in KBT since it was built, the tower has its problems.

“[It is] a tall, thin building where communication between floors is next to impossible,” Rosenbaum told the News. “The building was not built for science, but as an edifice to Philip Johnson himself.”

What lay inside KBT at the time of the fire was near-priceless: entire careers’ worth of carefully cultivated cells and custom-made reagents that would prove expensive to replace. Countless experiments were permanently preserved in freezers and incubators across the building — or so scientists hoped. Ph.D projects and endangered animals hung in the balance. Emergency power, they assumed, would kick in if a power outage were to happen.

But Dimitrova had been through too many emergencies to assume. Before coming to Yale, Dimitrova weathered Hurricane Katrina. Her lab lost power for three days but wasn’t impacted, she said. Later, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her lab went dark for 24 hours. In both cases, none of her team’s research was affected, thanks to backup power.

At her previous jobs, she said emergency power was “a given.” But when she accepted an offer to work at Yale and explored her lab, she was surprised that KBT’s procedures didn’t measure up.

“I was shocked that nothing of what I had would be in any way protected in the event of either a natural disaster occurring or a malfunctioning of the electrical system,” she said.

As a junior faculty member, Dimitrova felt it wasn’t her place to question authority. But the thought of losing all her work to a preventable disaster pushed her to speak up, she said. At weekly meetings with a supervisor, Dimitrova remembers discussing the issue to no avail. “There’s no money,” she remembers being told. 

In fact, Dimitrova once tracked down an assistant provost at a cocktail party to ask him for improvements to the emergency power system. She remembers him laughing the request off, saying, “Yale never will.”

Marisa Peryer

The administrator referred the News’ request for comment to University spokesperson Karen Peart. Peart did not respond to questions regarding the discussion. Dimitrova said she did not keep records of her requests for additional power system improvements. But other scientists shared similar stories — and agreed that Yale wasn’t as prepared for a power outage as it could have been.

Scott Holley, who led a lab in the tower, blamed the lack of administrative action on the new Yale Science Building.

“Once the University realized we were moving out of KBT, they did not want to do more modifications for it,” he said.

The plumbing was also “terrible,” Holley said. Other scientists confirmed this, and spoke of frequent water leaks and weak, inconsistent air conditioning. Holley remembers his office reaching 85 degrees in the summer. But just one floor up, he said, the rooms would remain very cold.

Lucas Sanor GRD ’19 recalled noticing a hole in the window next to his desk in professor Craig Crews’ lab on the fourth floor. And in summer months, the heat was so extreme that he worried that his sweat would drop onto the specimens he was examining. 

Outside KBT

The evening of the fire, as the sun set over KBT, researchers like Giuseppe Militello weren’t focused on their dissatisfaction with the building’s maintenance. They just wanted to go back in. 

Hours past sundown, they still waited outside in the cold. With the firefighters came a hazardous materials crew, and the dark building — filled with expensive specimens and equipment — was closed to non-emergency personnel. What started in the basement of an aging tower had become a much larger crisis.

Militello, who works in Dimitrova’s lab, recalled that researchers began to worry out loud that night. “Okay,” he remembers someone saying, “I’m losing years and years of work.”

Militello could tell Dimitrova was nervous from her emails. She was on a bus headed to British Columbia and reception was poor. Their lab manager was in Boston. 

Then, at around 9 p.m., there was a rush.

Millitello, escorted by safety personnel armed with flashlights, finally climbed to his lab on the ninth floor and tried to stuff as many specimens as he could into each freezer. There wasn’t enough space, he said, and the dark floors could have been filled with nitrogen fumes from tanks like Bond’s — which, if inhaled, could make you faint. 

He could only save so much. The elevators worked, he said, which meant that movers could easily wheel freezers to other buildings. But time worked against him: Plenty of other scientists wanted to get in the building, too, and the movers were hard to locate on a Sunday night.

The building’s poor ventilation also posed problems. Without proper airflow, the blackout had raised the temperature in some of the rooms, killing animals and research materials that would prove hard to replace.

And when Sanor walked into his lab, he saw one of his axolotls — a critically endangered salamander species native to Mexico — laying dead in its enclosure. 

Sanor’s damaged axolotl embryos, central to his dissertation research, were arguably worse losses. They develop slowly and the regrowth process took weeks. “It’s not catastrophic,” he said, but “when you work for weeks and it just disappears, that sucks.”

Dimitrova’s worst fears were, in essence, confirmed: Emergency power didn’t save the day. Still, she remembers dozens of Yale researchers and movers working to save as much as they could from the building. By early Monday morning, rows of freezers stood in the basement of Sloane Physics Laboratory, full of critical research materials and finally connected to much-needed electricity. 

Yale Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology chair Vivian Irish, who served as the liaison between researchers in the building and the University administration, told the News that night that she was “cautiously optimistic” her team could move back by Wednesday. But it was too early to tell how much was lost, she wrote.

“Why the hell is that possible?”

Bond wasn’t the only one who didn’t hear fire alarms that day. According to him, and others across the tower, alarms on the fourth and ninth floors weren’t functional. 

But even if they had worked, he said, the alarms may not have gone off: KBT’s fire system was designed to only alert floors immediately surrounding the blaze in the event of a minor fire.

Yale Environmental Health & Safety advisor for the tower Josh Armstrong did not respond to several requests for comment on the fire system. Peart, the University spokesperson, denied accusations that fire alarms at Kline were nonfunctional. She wrote in her statement that KBT’s fire alarm system has since been reconfigured to evacuate all floors in the event of a fire due to faculty members’ concerns. The Office of the Fire Marshal had tested the alarms after the fire, she wrote, and found that the system “functioned properly, as it was designed, and is in good working order.”

Scientists like Militello would later find that the emergency power they had assumed was present — and that Dimitrova knew was not — was hardly sufficient to handle the demands of an electrical fire. The elevators from the ground floor were working during the blackout, but the floors and their labs had gone dark. 

“Something I really did not understand was that we had no current in the building but the elevators were working,” Militello said. “Why the hell is that possible?”

Marisa Peryer

Dimitrova’s concern that there wasn’t enough emergency power turned out to be only part of the problem. The backup power in the building, said professor Thomas Pollard, came through the same transformer in the basement as the regular power. When that transformer burned, it knocked out both, he wrote in an email to the News.

“It boggles my mind that a university like Yale that invests so much in biological and biomedical research would not have [sufficient emergency power],” Bond said. “People could lose half to all their Ph.D. in a day. It’s a little scary to think about.”

The Recovery

The fire was just the beginning of the scientists’ woes.

Then came the recovery process.

Once evacuated, scientists were forced to deal with freezer failure and unconventional recovery methods for days until they were able to fully return to their labs. Pollard said power in his cold room failed twice after returning to the tower. 

Even though Pollard’s lab “did not lose irreplaceable materials at any point,” other scientists were not as lucky. Bond said emergency freezers in the tower’s 11th floor, which could be used in the event of a minor fridge breakdown, were stuffed with samples from several different labs — making inventory disorganized and difficult to sort through. Freezer units in Dimitrova’s lab were also scattered across buildings on Science Hill, delaying her work for “very, very long periods of time.” 

Researchers spent hours documenting and testing what they had — and what they didn’t — to determine what was salvageable. According to Bond, coordinating with the insurance company was difficult, tiring and time consuming.

Experiments that were months in the making had to be revived, replaced or redone, delaying research to the detriment of young scientists’ Ph.D. projects. For one graduate student in Dimitrova’s lab, this meant significantly limiting the scope of their project.

“Scientifically, of course, that also affected all of us,” Dimitrova said. Custom-made genetic sequences had to be relabeled and replaced before work in Dimitrova’s lab could resume. Work returned to normal about five or six weeks after the fire, she said.

In sum, the total damage to KBT’s labs reached the millions — the Crews Lab alone may have lost as much as $400,000 in precious antibodies, Bond estimated. 

“There is the element of loss that’s not easy to recover,” said Dimitrova. “You’ve lost a little bit of the excitement when you do it the second time.”

“What if?”

For Militello, who came to Dimitrova’s lab in January, the move to the Yale Science Building was a welcome change. Instead of a “dirty, old, ugly” tower, he said, the new location is sleek and clean.

Thanks to the insurance payout and $200,000 from the University, Dimitrova’s lab has bounced back from the disaster with enough money to hire new staff and replace what her team had lost, Dimitrova said. And in the Yale Science Building, the lab has an outlet connected directly to an emergency power system. Dimitrova made sure of it. But there’s only one, Militello said. “There should be more.”

Lukas Flippo

 

Peart wrote in her email to the News that improvements are to come. “We are confident that the YSB building has state of the art systems, and we are working with the faculty to place additional alternate power outlets in their YSB labs in an abundance of caution,” she wrote. “The fire impacted a number of investigators from our MCDB department. We regret that this happened and have worked hard to get the groups back to full operations.”

But original plans for the Yale Science Building mirrored KBT’s problems, including insufficient emergency outlets. According to Pollard’s recent email, the new cold rooms have none.

The move itself put a great disadvantage relative to her competitors in research, she added. And even though the Yale Science Building’s plans have been updated in response to scientists’ concerns, her worries remain.

“What if something else comes up, and I try to warn people and explain why that would be important for science and it’s not taken into account?” she said. Dimitrova thinks that the new building may not have sufficient emergency power if the fire didn’t happen.

“I definitely do not have the trust that our view as biologists is taken into account when making decisions,” she said.

From the windows of the new Yale Science Building, one can follow the dirt-brown columns of KBT floor by floor. First, there’s the ground-level cafe. Then, rows of laboratories, layered one on top of the other, much emptier than before. Finally, its summit, windowless and plain.

For Yale’s Astronomy Department, which will soon move into the skyscraper, the empty space presents a new opportunity to conduct research.

But for many of its former occupants, the building is a reminder of what was lost, of a loss that  could have been prevented. It looms over Science Hill as a makeshift mausoleum: Here lie cell cultures, DNA molecules and years of work. Here lies Ph.D. projects and views of the Atlantic.

Seven months after Bond stopped grading Biology 103 papers to evacuate from a building he didn’t know was burning, students taking this semester’s Biology 103 in the new Yale Science Building Marsh Lecture Hall followed suit. They gathered outside on Science Hill, cautiously optimistic. This time was different. There was a fire alarm, but there were no flames. Within the week, class picked up where it had left off. Business as usual. 

When the alarm rings again, will Yale heed it?

Lukas Flippo

Lukas Flippo

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