Five Injured by Sodium in Charles River Fire

Five burn injuries from a boat fire on the Charles River Thursday appear to have been caused by sodium, said Jake Wark, spokesperson for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. Local media sources reported that the sodium may have come from Sodium Drop, an MIT tradition in which sodium is thrown into the Charles River so that students can watch its violent reaction with the water.

Thursday afternoon, a volunteer cleanup crew was working on the edge of the Charles River when they “retrieved an 8-inch piece of taffy-like substance,” Wark said.

The crew, volunteers for the Charles River Cleanup Boat, then placed the substance in a container with wet debris where it caught fire and exploded, burning three individuals, Wark said. According to an article from The Boston Globe, two of the crew members suffered first- and second-degree burns. Two paramedics responding to the scene also suffered minor burns. None of the injuries were life-threatening.

“While further testing will be necessary for confirmation purposes,” Wark said, “initial analysis by State Police chemists indicates that the substance recovered yesterday was sodium metal.”

The Globe reported that officials do not believe the sodium was placed along the river with the intention of causing harm.

The sodium exploded on the Boston side of the Charles River near the Massachusetts Avenue bridge at approximately 2 p.m.

While local media sources, namely WBZ-TV News, have linked the incident to Sodium Drop, it is unclear at this point whether the sodium is connected to MIT.

“State Police and fire officials are aware of sodium drops into the Charles River,” Wark said, “but how this substance got to the Boston side of the river remains under investigation.”

Pamela Dumas Serfes, spokesperson for the MIT News Office, said that “MIT is cooperating fully with appropriate authorities to establish the facts.”

David Kaplar, managing editor of WBZ-TV News, said the station made the connection between yesterday’s explosion and MIT after a fire marshal at the scene informed WBZ-TV that “blocks of sodium” were responsible. “[We did a] Web search and put two-and-two together,” Kaplar said.

An Internet search for sodium and the Charles River returns numerous references to Sodium Drop, including photos of the event and references in official MIT Admissions blogs.

According to an article on the WBZ-TV Web site, television news producers “informed the fire marshal’s office about the ritual.”

A video of the 2007 Sodium Drop was posted by a freshman to YouTube and later removed. For a mirror of the original, see