Thursday, 4:30 PM
MIT prank may have caused minor explosion on Charles River
By Andrew Ryan, Globe Staff
A whitish, lumpy substance that exploded and hurt two people cleaning the Charles River has been tentatively identified as sodium metal, and authorities are trying to determine whether the material was left over from an annual prank by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The substance, which looked like an 8-inch long chunk of Styrofoam, was identified after a tentative analysis at the state crime laboratory, said Jake Wark, spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney's office. Two volunteers suffered superficial burns when they picked up the sodium with a 10-foot pole similar to a pool skimmer, said Tom McNichol, president of the nonprofit Charles River Cleanup Boat.
Sodium metal explodes when it is exposed to water. To welcome a new school year, MIT students have a long tradition of stealing a lump of sodium from the school's chemistry labs and heaving it into the Charles.
"State police and the state Department of Fire Services are aware of an annual sodium drop into the Charles River," Wark said, adding the incident remains under investigation.
Pamela Dumas Serfes, a school spokeswoman, said in a statement: "MIT is cooperating fully with appropriate authorities to establish the facts." Serfes could not say whether a sodium drop took place this year.
The explosion Thursday on the Boston bank of the river cost the cleanup boat thousands of dollars in decontamination bills and has hurt the image of an organization that relies on volunteers and donations, McNichol said. In the cleanup's four-year history, nothing like this has ever happened, he said.
"These kids have caused us some major problems," McNichol said. "What if it wasn't our guys picking it up with a 10-foot pole. It could have been a kid and he would have lost an arm or an eye."