In this case, highly reactive sodium was heated and drawn from 55-gallon drums for a process in which tantalum was being extracted from tantalum ore. Molten sodium reacts violently with water to give off a great deal of light and heat.

There was always a bit of sodium left in the bottom of the drums, so it was burned off in a room that also served as a wash room for barrels and other equipment. Water was present from previous washings in trenches below gratings on the floor.

In this case, an operator had made a weighing error that allowed a large amount of sodium to remain in the barrel. The burnoff soon got out of control, and firemen were summoned. Some firemen were very seriously burned as they shoveled salt onto the sodium to try to put out the fire.

Company experts said the firemen were burned because they'd used a wet shovel to shovel in the salt. We showed that much more water had vaporized into the room from below the grating because of the high room temperature the fire had created. When the firemen leaned the barrel over to shovel the salt in, the water vapor found the sodium and the fire began with renewed force.

The case settled quite favorably soon after our report was filed.