University of Idaho officials say four students were injured in an explosion late Thursday while testing experimental rocket fuel in a parking lot on campus.
The students, all members of a student club called the Northwest Organization of Rocket Engineers, underwent surgery at Gritman Medical Center in Moscow and were recovering there Friday morning.
One student was initially listed in critical condition, but a hospital spokesman said Friday afternoon that all four students were in good condition and one had been released. The victims’ parents have been notified.
The hospital spokesman said the students did not want their names released, although reports indicate two are leaders of the student club. Officials said three of them study engineering.
The explosion happened just before 10 p.m. on the east side of the steam plant that generates power for the campus, Daniel Ewart, UI’s vice president for infrastructure, said at a news conference.
Initial reports indicated the club was testing a rocket, but Ewart clarified Friday morning that the device was not intended to be launched. He described it as a galvanized metal pipe about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and 8 inches to 12 inches long that contained fuel.
“The intention of the experiment was not to launch a projectile up into the air. It was to test rocket fuel, the way it burns and things like that,” he said. “The device was placed on a wooden pallet, and in the process of the explosion the pallet was destroyed.”
Ewart said a faculty adviser was present when the explosion happened. He said the club is recognized by the university but wouldn’t say if the fuel test had received proper approval.
“The group is sanctioned,” he said. “The event we’re investigating.”
Ewart said he didn’t have answers to a number of questions from reporters, including why the fuel test was being conducted so late.
Grant Thurman, a member of the Northwest Organization of Rocket Engineers, told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News that the club was testing its own formulation of rocket fuel when the explosion occurred.
Thurman said the man who lit the fuel, a co-leader of the group, was wearing a face shield, and club members watching wore only eye protection, the Daily News reported.
Moscow police Chief James Fry said his department was not notified in advance of the fuel test. FBI and Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms officials also responded to the scene.
“We are assisting the ATF in their investigation, and at this time it is not a criminal investigation,” Fry said.
Officials said there was no evidence the explosion had damaged vehicles or buildings. They said emergency personnel arrived on scene within minutes of the explosion to triage wounds and cordon off the parking lot.
The university also issued two “Vandal alerts,” which notified students and employees about the explosion through emails, text messages and automated phone calls.
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