Maple Grove science experiment ends with face on fire, chaos

Four Maple Grove Junior High students were hurt, one with serious burns, when their teacher lighted methanol in class.

Dane Neuberger was front and center when the classroom science experiment blew up, setting his face on fire.

"I was on fire," said 15-year-old Neuberger, who is being treated at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis for second-degree burns to his face, neck and right hand. "People were screaming, and everyone just ran out."

Three other students treated for burns at the hospital were released.

Thursday morning, ninth-graders in the second-hour science class at Maple Grove Junior High School had turned their desks toward the science table where teacher Matthew Achor conducted experiments for the class final.

The first time the teacher dropped a match into a jug of methanol, Neuberger said the experiment seemed to work. "It made a loud boom and a little flame," he said. "Everyone thought that was cool and clapped."

Neuberger looked down at his paper to begin writing down his observations. "I'm pretty sure he was starting it up to do it a second time," Neuberger said. "And the next thing I know I'm on fire."

"The whole thing was confusion," he said. "It hit my face and my chest. ... I felt the heat of the fire on my face."

Neuberger said Achor immediately threw a fire blanket on him, extinguishing the fire on his face. Neuberger pulled off his long-sleeve shirt, which was still on fire.

"It must have been a pretty big explosion because even papers around the room were on fire. Kids got their hair burned. Yeah, it was terrible," he said. "It was chaos. It was scary."

Another science teacher came to the students' aid, taking Neuberger to nurse's office while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. Neuberger said Achor talked to him, saying, "'I'm so sorry." And then he tended to another injured student.

Achor, 61, couldn't be reached for comment.

Neuberger said he was in shock when the fire hit him so he didn't feel a lot of pain. But as he waited for the ambulance, the pain overtook the shock. "It was unbearable. It just hurt so bad," he said. "It felt like I didn't have my lips."

Dr. Ryan Fey, a burn surgeon at the medical center, says it appears Neuberger suffered mostly second-degree burns. Doctors will continue to observe him in case the burns evolve into more serious injuries that would require skin grafts. If the burns heal normally in the next 10 to 14 days, scarring should be minimal, he said.

"Burns hurt," Fey said. "They're quite painful."

Neuberger's parents sat on each side of his hospital bed Thursday.

His father said the family is focused on his son's recovery and not how the school handled the situation or any possible missteps made by Achor.

"I'm sure he feels bad, he's obviously a teacher; he likes kids. We're not looking for blood from him," Gus Neuberger said. "But perhaps I think some policy changes and safety issues need to be addressed."

Maple Grove Fire Chief Scott Anderson said there was a "flash fire and it went out" as the students "were doing an experiment they've been doing year after year."

The flames on the students were extinguished with a "fire coat," said Barbara Olson, a spokeswoman for the Osseo School District. The burning papers were put out with a fire extinguisher. The room was undamaged, and no sprinklers or alarms went off.

Anderson said that by the time firefighters crossed the street to the school from the station, "there was nothing for them to do other than ventilate a little bit of smoke."

With friends surrounding him in his hospital room, Dane Neuberger talked about the fire's aftermath. "I'm going to have to shave my head tomorrow," he said, pointing out that his hair is "all scorched." On Thursday, he missed his first wrestling meet of the season and likely will miss a few more.

For now, he's not too keen about seeing himself in the mirror. "It's kind of scary looking," he said. His swollen lips make it difficult to eat.

And that, he said, "sucks."

Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. mlsmith@startribune.com • 612-673-4788 asimons@startribune.com • 612-673-4482

  • related content

  • With his mother, Lisa, at his side at Hennepin County Medical Center, Dane Neuberger described what led to his burns Thursday at Maple Grove Junior High.

  • Dane Neuberger sat with his father, Gus, and his mother, Lisa. The family is focusing on Dane’s recovery and not on missteps by the school or teacher Matthew Achor. “We’re not looking for blood from him,” Gus said.

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