During the early morning hours on a Tuesday, a university support staff member was preparing for an off-campus community outreach program for high-school-age students in the community. One of the program demonstrations was to show students the reaction energy and properties of the hydrogen + oxygen = water chemical reaction. It was a demonstration that the professor and the staff member overseeing the program had done for over 15 years with no incidents ever occurring.

To prepare for the demonstration, eight balloons were filled, four with pure hydrogen and four with the proper combination of hydrogen and oxygen. The balloons were placed into a larger plastic garbage bag and carried outside to a university-owned SUV located next to the building's loading dock. The bag of balloons was being placed into the vehicle from the right side door. The balloons were inside the vehicle, but not yet in their final place for transport. As the staff member was leaning into the doorway during this placement, a balloon at the top end of the bag ignited, which then set off a fiery explosive reaction involving the other balloons.

The staff member, who received burns to the face, was transported to a nearby hospital by the professor. The vehicle's windshield and two back windows were damaged, and the headliner of the vehicle was slightly scorched.

Incident Date
Aug 10, 2010
  • Vehicle & Fueling Systems
  • Vehicle carrying hydrogen balloons
Damage and Injuries
When Incident Discovered
Lessons Learned

Although the preparation-for-transport procedures were done the same way they were done for previous outreach programs, this time it proved to be a different situation. It is not clear what caused the ignition of the first balloon, which then set off a chain reaction to the others. The incident shows that preparation for transport is a very important element in the overall process, and it should be evaluated for risk factors along with every other element of the process.