Steam Pipe Explosion Damages Building 66

Building 66 sustained extensive water damage after a high-pressure steam pipe burst in the sub-basement Friday night, according to Steven K. Wetzel, manager of facilities for the Chemical Engineering department. No one was injured, Wetzel said, though repairs will probably cost upwards of seven figures.

Graduate students said they felt the building tremble as if there had been an earthquake.

“All of a sudden we heard this really loud explosion … you could hear this whooshing sound, and the whole building shook,” said Sanjoy Sircar G, who was working in his lab on the third floor at the time.

Sircar said he didn’t immediately realize that it was a steam explosion. He said he and his lab mate just knew to get out immediately. “I grabbed my coat, he grabbed his laptop, and we ran to save our lives,” he said.

The burst pipe had been carrying 400-degree steam at 200 psi, Wetzel said. “If someone had been down there, they probably would have been killed,” he said. Wetzel said the cause was an expansion joint that had separated.

From the sub-basement, the steam billowed out to fill the building. The heat from the steam set off sprinklers on the second floor, causing water damage from the second floor down.

“There was steam everywhere … you couldn’t see anything inside,” said Sreeram Vaddiraju, a post-doc who was walking toward Stata when the explosion happened.

Sircar said he saw the second-floor lounge flooded with water on Friday. Vaddiraju said there was water gushing down staircases when he tried to enter Friday night to assess the damage to his lab on the fourth floor.

Both Sircar and Vaddiraju estimated that about 20 people were in the building at the time of the explosion, judging by the crowd of students standing outside.

Both Wetzel and Director of Facilities and Security John DiFava said it is too early to tell how much repairs will cost, but Wetzel said: “it’s much more than a million, let’s put it that way.”

Hardest hit was the Chemical and Biological Engineering teaching lab in the sub-basement, where the vented steam melted ceiling tiles and damaged equipment. Water from above also flooded the lab.

Crews worked around the clock this weekend to pump out the water and clean up the fallen debris.

By as early as Saturday morning, the upper floors were mostly dry and some students were able to return to their labs to retrieve their belongings. Vaddiraju said the building was still “extremely humid” — and quite smelly — on Saturday afternoon. “My glasses fogged up,” he said.

On Monday, the damp smell was not completely gone, but classes continued as usual in the lecture rooms on the first floor.

The lounge on the second floor, which had been soaked by the sprinklers, was dry and open to students. “I thought the lounge would take massive reconstruction,” Sircar said. “[Facilities], in a day and a half, did an outstanding job.”

The upstairs labs on the third floor and above were largely unaffected except for some damage from the condensation and from falling ceiling tiles. Vaddiraju said that his lab equipment was mostly functional, though the printers had stopped working.

“In our lab, some papers got smudged from the steam, that’s all,” Sircar said.

The experience left Sircar slightly wary of all the exposed pipes in the basement and sub-basement levels. “You walk through the tunnels all the time,” he said. “You have to question what maintenance is performed on these pipes.”

Building 66, officially called the Landau Building, houses classrooms and most of the Chemical Engineering department. It was named after Ralph Landau ScD ’41, a chemical engineer who founded the Scientific Design Company, Inc.

Building 66 is one of several buildings on campus designed by I.M. Pei ’40.