Mystery over scientist's death

A scientist was found dead the morning after he had stayed late in a lab working with freezing liquid nitrogen, an inquest heard on Monday.

Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 10:10 am
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 8:52 pm
Inquests. PNL-151014-120252001

Damian Bowen, 32, who was born in Bedfordshire, was found by colleagues at the HIV laboratory connected to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, in Chelsea, west London five years ago.

The geneticist and biomedical scientist by training was working alone getting a flask of liquid nitrogen to freeze samples of blood, the jury inquest at the Royal Courts of Justice heard.

The inquest was told that liquid nitrogen can make the air in a small room unbreathable very quickly.

Coroner Kevin McLoughlin said: “The issues that we are likely to explore are Mr Bowen’s training that he received at work, the circumstances of how he came to be found deceased at work in a room, the nature of his work, in particular when he was working in October 2011 he was using liquid nitrogen.”

He was found dead at the lab on October 27, 2011, after starting his shift the previous day.

He was last seen by a senior colleague at 5.30pm and told her he would be staying late to freeze samples of blood so they could be stored for further testing.

He was discovered lifeless just over 12 hours later wearing a lab coat and a protective visor on the floor of a small room that contained a freezer of liquid nitrogen.

Mr Bowen, who was working alone on the fifth floor lab, would have entered the room to fill a vacuum flask with liquid nitrogen , which was used to rapidly chill blood samples.

After his colleague found his body blocking the doorway to the room at around 6am she called for the help of Dr Anthony Giles who was having breakfast nearby.

Dr Giles told the court: “His leg was incredibly stiff, he was very cold and not life-like.

“When I touched him he was icy cold. The only time I’ve seen a body that cold is in the morgue.

“It was a cold room. The room was much colder than the rest of the laboratory.”

The doctor said he was wary of the room because he is very aware of liquid nitrogen’s dangers.

He continued: “If it is spilled in a room with not enough air it can be very dangerous.

“It leaves it without any oxygen. The effects of it can be very quick and you may not be aware.”

Loud alarms and flashing lights are initiated when the room becomes filled with cold nitrogen but these were not sounded when Mr Bowen was found, the court heard.

Roberta Bowen, his sister, wept as she told the court the family want “answers” and paid an emotional tribute.

She said: “He was very laid back. He was very sociable and had lots of friends.

“He was into science but was quite creative as well. He had interests in travelling. He was a kind person.

“It’s gone on so long I’m hoping we will get some answers.”

Mr Bowen was employed by the Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust but the lab building was shared with Imperial College London.

The coroner said a toxicology report showed that no drugs or alcohol had any “impact” on his death.

The Health and Safety Executive are still probing whether a violation was made after the Met Police concluded its criminal investigation.

His mother, Linda, then 55, from Luton, has demanded for “the truth to come out”.

Manni Sahni, a fellow technician at the research centre, paid tribute to him in the trust’s newsletter.

He said: “Damo, what a pleasure it has been to work with you. You have kept me entertained with your unique dressing, in particular your ‘socks rule’, football commentary, travel plans and vast, eclectic music interests.”

The inquest continues.