Hazardous materials situation in Berkeley, California
The death by deadly chemical of a former UC Berkeley professor on Tuesday, March 18, triggered a significant joint command response and saw a city block shut down for more than six hours. Photo: David Yee

The death by chemical suicide earlier this week of a former UC Berkeley professor left many in the community reeling with disbelief.

Berkeleyside’s revelation that the person found dead in a room at the Berkeley City Club was Sydney Kustu, who killed herself on her 71st birthday using a potentially deadly chemical called sodium azide, was shocking to those who had known her, including neighbors and friends who remembered her as “friendly,” “kind” and “generous.” The nature of the death was also so unusual that it prompted many who had not known her to take pause.

UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources has shared a statement about Kustu, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who was described as “an eminent scholar and one of the world’s leading microbiologists.” She is remembered as a generous mentor, and a dedicated and inspiring teacher, a colleague wrote. The statement can be read in its entirety here.

The incident also prompted a major emergency response operation in Berkeley, one that saw three agencies set up a joint command and work collaboratively to evacuate a landmarked building, and close down a city block for more than six hours.

The use of sodium azide, a compound Kustu would have likely had routine access to at her former UC Berkeley lab, necessitated a cautious and sensitive approach from first responders. Kustu left two notes taped to the floor of the third-floor room she was staying in at the Berkeley City Club.

“We treated the situation as a hazmat situation from the start based off the warnings left behind,” Officer Stephanie Polizziani, a Berkeley Police spokeswoman, told Berkeleyside. “We treated the situation with an abundance of caution given the nature of what we were dealing with.”

The suicide victim used sodium azide to kill herself. Photo: Wikipedia
The suicide victim used sodium azide to kill herself. Photo: Wikipedia

Kustu, a Berkeley resident who was not a member of the Berkeley City Club, arrived at the Julia Morgan-designed building on Sunday, March 16, having booked a three-night stay, according to Michaela Winn, general manager of the Berkeley City Club, who sent a detailed note out to club members Wednesday, March 19.

Monday night, Kustu returned to the club in a taxi and fell while getting out of the taxi onto the sidewalk, according to Winn. The taxi driver helped Kustu into the club and then to room 307 where she was staying.

The following day, at around 1:30 p.m., Trevor Johnson, the club’s director of operations, asked the club’s housekeeping supervisor to check room 307 as he was concerned about the guest’s wellbeing after learning of the fall the evening before. The supervisor found a “Do Not Disturb” sign on Kustu’s door, but she knocked and unlocked the door after getting no answer. Once in the room, she found two handwritten notes taped to the entry area floor and Kustu lying on the bed, deceased.

The windows of the room had been opened, there was no towel blocking the threshold gap, and there was no odor coming from the room, Winn wrote.

A bottle had been left on a table with its lid tightly secured.

Winn and Johnson read both notes. One, written in large print, warned of sodium azide having been used in the room, along with the poison sign. The second note included personal information, such as Kustu’s laptop passcode.

After covering Kustu with a blanket and closing and locking the guest room door, Winn returned to her desk and called the Berkeley Police Department at 1:46 p.m. A police officer was at the front dest at 2:04 p.m. and he was immediately escorted to the third floor. Berkeley firefighters and paramedics were not far behind, and they examined those who had been in room 307 to ensure there had been no contact with the potentially deadly chemical.

Berkeley Women's City Club, 2315 Durant Ave, Berkeley, CA
The Berkeley City Club at 2315 Durant Ave. in Berkeley was evacuated in its entirety after a suicide using sodium azide caused a hazmat situation.

At 2:10 p.m. authorities shut down the 2300 block of Durant Avenue, according to Polizziani. All traffic, including AC Transit buses, was diverted, as well as pedestrians. A plethora of emergency vehicles, including fire engines and police cruisers, was parked around the central Berkeley street for hours. (Emergency units only began clearing the scene at 7:44 p.m. that evening to reopen the block.)

At 3:47 p.m., the Berkeley Fire Department asked the club’s managers to help evacuate the building. This step was taken as a precaution to ensure nobody could come into contact with any toxic chemical that might still be in the building.

Sodium azide is a rapidly acting, potentially deadly chemical that exists as an odorless white solid. When mixed with water or an acid, it changes rapidly to a toxic gas with a pungent odor, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sodium azide is best known as the chemical found in car airbags. A former student of Kustu said it was normal to find sodium azide in her lab at UC Berkeley while he was working there. “It is commonly used as biocide to prevent bacterial growth in solution,” he said in an email to Berkeleyside.

Berkeley City Club staff and guests were taken across the street and stood on the lawn of a Victorian home there. Others sat on the curb under a tree, according to Robin Abcarian, a journalist who was staying at the club, and wrote about her experience for the LA Times. The evacuation was completed by 4:03 p.m.

Professor Sydney Kustu, described as “kind,” “friendly,” and a “generous mentor.” Photo: UC Berkeley
Professor Sydney Kustu, described as “kind,” “friendly,” and a “generous mentor.” Photo: UC Berkeley

Soon afterwards, Berkeley Police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss walked over to the evacuated group to brief them. Abcarian reported that she told them authorities were using a lot of caution “because we certainly want the City Club and guests and staff to have a comfortable situation when you go back inside.”

Kusmiss continued: “There is a chemical that the Fire Department brought outside from one of the rooms, and it has the potential to be volatile, which means if you shake it too much or if it gets static electricity, it can blow up. Prior to 15 minutes or half an hour ago, we were only concerned about the chemical being deadly on your skin or inhaling it, but now it has the potential to blow up — a small chance, but we don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Just before 5 p.m., Berkeley Police asked the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau to come to the scene. This was not done earlier because the joint command, in particular Berkeley Fire Department’s hazardous materials unit, was taking steps to remove the toxic chemical and make the building safe before allowing anyone inside, according to Berkeley Police Sgt. Joe Okies, who was on the scene of the incident.

Due to the potential volatility of the sodium azide, UCPD’s Explosive Ordinance Device team was charged with its removal and disposal. They arrived dressed in protective clothing and deployed a robot to enter Kustu’s room to pick up and contain the chemical, according to Polizziani.

According to Sgt. Patricia Wilson at the coroner’s office, the coroner’s unit arrived on Durant Avenue after 6 p.m. That staffer took the usual precautions for dealing with a body that has come into contact with a potentially deadly substance, and left with Kustu’s body about two hours later, Wilson said.

Other than authorities, nobody was allowed access to the Berkeley City Club until approximately 7:33 p.m., according to Winn.

After the coroner’s office removed Kustu’s body, and emergency teams deemed the premises to be safe, the building was reopened. Managers secured the door of guest room 307 with a Berkeley Police lieutenant, after which guests returned to the building and a scheduled evening event went ahead. Julia’s, the Berkeley City Club’s public restaurant, was closed for the rest of the evening.

There are no details yet about a memorial service for Sydney Kustu.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has skilled, trained counselors at a crisis center who can be reached by calling 800-273-TALK (8255) anytime.

Chemical suicide victim was former UC Berkeley professor (03.19.14)
Elderly woman commits suicide with toxic chemical at Berkeley City Club (03.18.14)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...