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50-year-old bottle of acid causes explosion scare, evacuations

A bottle of picric acid that had gone untouched for 50 years created a scare in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
A bottle of picric acid that had gone untouched for 50 years created a scare in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
John Roman, Getty Images/iStockphoto

SALT LAKE CITY — Several homes and duplexes were evacuated Wednesday while hazardous materials crews safely disposed of a 50-year-old bottle of picric acid.

"I didn't know I was going to create this much excitement today," joked Gary Cottam, who had been storing the acid in his house since he was a teenager, unaware that it was a highly volatile substance used primarily in the manufacturing of explosives.

Cottam, 63, said when he was about 14 years old in the mid-1960s, he had tropical fish. He said he went to a pharmacy one day to purchase an ounce of picric acid to use as medicine for his fish.

"I thought the bottle was neater than the fish, so I never did treat 'em. Well, I had it on my knickknack shelf, it's been following me around to all the moves and the apartments and everything. Yesterday I put it on eBay thinking it was an antique bottle I could sell. Well, somebody sent me a message and said it was explosive. So I looked it up online and it was explosive," he said.

The bottle had never been opened.

Cottam joked that for a minute he thought about taking it out to the west desert himself and detonating it. Instead, he took out to his backyard and called 911.

A hazmat crew and a bomb squad from the Salt Lake fire and police departments responded to Cottam's house, 2074 E. Sunnyside (840 South), about 11 a.m. Four duplexes and three apartments were evacuated, said Salt Lake fire spokesman Jasen Asay.

Emergency crews then dug a hole in Cottam's backyard and burned the chemical, he said. Residents were allowed back into their homes about 1:45 p.m.

"I never did feel like I'm very lucky. Today I'm reconsidering," Cottam said.

Contributing: Mike Anderson

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam