Tech students badly burned behind frat house

The incident happened about 12:30 a.m. at the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house at the intersection of 6th Street and Techwood Drive.

The men, ages 20 and 21, were burned as they tried to mix aluminum powder and rust powder.

A Georgia Tech spokeswoman identified the two as Tommy Keen, a sophomore aerospace engineering student from Peachtree City, and Paul Grzybowski, a junior materials science student from Appling.

The students were taken to Grady Memorial Hospital for treatment of first- and second-degree burns to their upper bodies. Both were listed in critical condition.

"Georgia Tech's primary concern is focused on the condition and well-being of the students involved in this incident," Tech spokeswoman Lisa Ray Grovenstein said. "The institute's Environmental Health and Safety team is working closely with the Atlanta Fire Department to determine the exact nature of the materials involved in this incident and how the injuries occurred."

Mechanical engineering student Michael Parker of Hiram was at an adjacent fraternity house when the incident happened.

Parker told WSB Radio that Keen and Grzybowski had mixed aluminum powder and rust powder in an experiment that he called "high school basic chemistry." The experiment can produce a pyrotechnic effect, much like a huge sparkler.

"It's real simple to get; you don't have to really go very far to get the materials," Parker said. "You just put them together and ignite them with a butane torch and it's called a thermite reaction."

Parker said the resulting reaction "runs thousands of degrees Celsius – it's molten iron."

Parker told WSB that he didn't hear an actual explosion.

"In a thermite reaction, there should never be a real explosion, unless they hit an oxygen pocket or something like that that was exceedingly flammable," he said. "Once the reaction has actually started, it's literally just molten iron, but it can get out of control if you don't have it set up right."

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