On Sunday 10 February, around 4:30 pm, a routine wash-up after an experiment went wrong.
Despite following protocol, the incident in room 305 of the Biomedical Sciences (BMS) building led to a fire on three floors which raged for over three hours, caused flooding to the building itself, particularly the first floor, and put decades of research by the staff who work in the building at risk.
When the fire began shortly before 5 pm, those involved immediately placed a fire blanket on the flames. After that protocol failed and the blaze continued, they raised the fire alarm for the building and evacuated.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service arrived to the scene within minutes of being alerted to the fire at 4:58 pm. They were joined by Police Scotland, who received a call around 5:05 pm to assist with the situation.
Fife Police Division noted there was a multi-agency response, with the fire service being the lead agency.
More than 30 firefighters on eight fire engines and thousands of gallons of water were involved in extinguishing the blaze.
Although it appeared to engulf most of the building due to the large amount of smoke that blew far into town, the fire itself was contained to a handful of rooms on the second, third, and fourth floors of the BMS building.
Police Scotland quickly set up a perimeter and diversion at the scene, which halted traffic entering and leaving St Andrews along the main road.
Despite hundreds of student and public spectators, the crowd was eventually pushed back as far as the Old Course Hotel car park.
There were also fears while it raged that the fire was dangerous due to possible chemicals involved, a fear heightened by a chemical smell that leaked into town. However, threats of such danger were eliminated by emergency services early Monday morning.
Powell Hall and Agnes Blackadder Hall, the closest student accommodation to the BMS building, were not evacuated as the fire raged, though students were required to use an alternate route to get back to their halls until classes resumed on Monday morning.
The fire appeared to be extinguished by about 8 pm, when Fire and Rescue had stopped hosing the building, but emergency services remained on the scene until all threats of “hot spots” were eliminated.
No one was injured due to the fire, and all those in the building when the alarm was sounded were evacuated.
A joint investigation by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Police Scotland publicly declared the fire as accidental on Monday 11 February at 3:36 pm.
Once the fire alarm was activated, the University of St Andrews’ major incident protocol was activated, and the team used the cafeteria in the Medical Building as the incident headquarters.
This team consisted of Estates, Residential and Business Services (RBS), Communications, EHSS, Planning, IT Services, the Principal’s Office, Student Services, staff from Chemistry and Biology, and some volunteer wardens that work in student halls of residence.
They began by working through swipe card logs for the building, checking names against a staff and student database, and calling home and mobile numbers for confirmation that those individuals were safe.
If a call went unanswered, the security staff visited that person’s home and knocked on their doors to make contact and confirm their wellbeing.
Meanwhile, wardens were told to inform those students observing the fire to return to their residences and keep their windows closed, due to the smoke and threat of hazardous chemicals in the air.
However, some wardens returned to the HQ and joined the team, calling numbers and helping comb through the swipe entry log sheets for the building.
These were cleared shortly before midnight on Sunday, which assured the team that no one was injured in the fire.
By early Monday morning, the Fire Brigade officially announced the blaze was extinguished, and using infra-red monitoring, they confirmed there were no significant hot spots in the building.
By 1:30 am on Monday morning, after carrying out air quality monitoring and water sampling, they revealed there were no significant air quality issues or chemical contamination in the air.
Though the fire was contained, damage to the building persisted and still remains a concern.
Because of the thousands of gallons of water used to extinguish the flames, every level of the BMS building was affected, and by Monday midday, water was still pouring down its stairwells.
Additionally, floors and electric cables lay under inches of water, and getting into the building safely was a challenge for emergency services and the University due to threats of electrocution.
Power to the BMS building was cut by the fire brigade and Estates team at 2:40 pm to limit this risk, and academic colleagues were able to enter the building in protective clothing to recover as much research as they could.
Because of the extensive water damage to the BMS building, it will be out of action for at least a year, though likely longer, in order to repair the damage.
Options are urgently being explored by the University to allow researchers to get back to work and enable them with the tools they need to continue.
Another fear from the 100 post-graduates and staff who work in the building was the fire’s damage to their research.
Of the BMS building, the University stated, “The Biomedical Sciences Building on the North Haugh, St Andrews, is shared by St Andrews’ Schools of Chemistry and Biology. Built in the late 90s, the four-storey building houses labs conducting medically focused research in organic and synthetic chemistry, virology and microbiology.
“Built as the first of its kind as an innovative way to bring cutting edge interdisciplinary biology and chemistry together, BMS is known as a centre of excellence addressing issues such antibiotic resistance and infectious disease.”
Within the building, precious biological source material, which is central to its research, is stored in large freezers, which maintain a constant temperature of -80 degrees celsius.
When power is lost to the building, these freezers begin to quickly defrost, endangering the research and thus careers of those who work in the building.
Manufacturers of the building estimated that power was lost for a maximum of 20 hours, to such a point that those rising temperatures would degrade the contents inside the freezers.
Staff were able to enter the building around 3 pm on Monday to recover the freezers and move them along the corridors to safety.
The team recovered a vast majority of the BMS refrigerated storage, with the highest temperature found in any freezer being -79 degrees. However, the University noted that not everything could be saved and some colleagues will lose their research.
Many science students, including all computer science students, were disrupted by the BMS building damage on Monday 11 February when classes began for the week.
The Jack Cole building, the main hub for the School of Computer Science, shares the same high-voltage line with the BMS building.
On 11 February, an email to students read, “The high voltage switches and protection mechanisms into BMC are deep under water and inaccessible until the flooding subsides (or is made to do so). It’s not the case that the buildings are inextricably inter-twined. Rather, circumstances leave the only option being to cut off power at the next upstream ‘junction’, and that affects multiple buildings.”
All computer science teaching activities were cancelled on Monday 11 February, along with many biology and chemistry teachings.
In terms of entering the Jack Cole building, Professor Simon Dobson of Computer Science informed students via email, “Since it’s unsafe (and illegal) to be in the building once the battery backup for the alarms and emergency lights has run down (which they already have), the Cole [Jack Cole building] will stay closed until further notice. At this stage it looks likely that this will be for the rest of this week, although that will hopefully change.”
Professor Dobson noted that the department would try to relocate as many classes as they could into other teaching spaces, and deadlines, projects, and other issues which arose would be accommodated accordingly. The University and research institutions gathered to support those who lost research and the damage suffered from the fire.
On 12 February, the Royal Society of Chemistry shared on social media, “We are very sorry to hear about the fire at @univofstandrews and the work that may have been lost as a result. If you have been affected, our Chemists’ Community Fund is here to help our members with support, advice and financial assistance.”
On Sunday evening, Stephen Gethins, MP for North East Fife, shared on social media, “It is awful to hear about the damage done by a fire in the biomedical sciences building at the University of St Andrews’ North Haugh complex this evening.
“I am glad to hear that no one is thought to have been injured, but I know the damage caused will have had a severe impact on some of the fantastic work that gets done in this building and this will be devastating for those involved. Thanks to the emergency services for their assistance, including fire crews from across North East Fife, and to university staff who have been on hand to help.”
Principal Sally Mapstone also addressed students and staff late Sunday evening via email, informing them of the exhaustive checks carried out to ensure student and staff safety and confirming there were no reports of any casualties.
She said, “I am exceptionally grateful to the Scottish Fire Service and other members of the emergency services who were on scene within minutes, to members of staff from Chemistry and Biology and to the colleagues who have formed the University’s major incident response team to support the emergency services.”
Professor Mapstone also added, “I know however that our colleagues and students who work in the BMS Building have been deeply shocked by this incident, its implications for their work and the body of world class research for which BMS is internationally known.”