She shut the window quickly, desperate to catch her breath. Looking outside, she watched closely as her son carried the offending object to the trunk of her car. What on earth was he up to?
He got into the car and drove off in a hurry. But where was he going? His location was somewhere desolate. He was panicking. He had to get rid of the evidence before they could find him. When he was finally caught, everyone in their neighborhood was forced to run for their lives
David Charles Hahn was 10-years old when his grandfather gifted him with a children’s chemistry book, The Golden Book of Chemistry. What he thought was a thoughtful present at the time became the starting point of where it all went wrong.
As David grew, his obsession for Chemistry grew with him. As did his hunger for dangerous experiments.
David’s parents divorced when he was young and as an only child of divorced parents, he split his time between his re-partnered parents’ houses and felt his support base crumble. But the one thing he could always rely on was science.
David looked to science books for comfort. It was the one place he felt safe, until he took things way too far.
When David turned 14, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his bedroom at his dad’s house. His workshop was complete with plenty of beakers, Bunsen burners, and test tubes.
He would come home from school and go straight into his room, watching youtube videos and reading chemistry books on how to try out different home experiments. What started off as small projects here and there, soon turned into a devastating event.
David’s first science experiment accident happened when he learned how to make nitroglycerine – a highly explosive acid. Up until this accident, chemical spills and foul potent smells were the norm.
But when they eventually led to him destroying his bedroom in his dad’s house, he had no choice but to live in the basement. But his experiments didn’t stop.
David had lots of projects on the go by then. He was making phosphorous paint. He also produced a small amount of chlorine gas.
One of the neighbors has seen him walking about in a gas mask. He was apparently working on chloroform, isolating some of the halogens. He had also begun writing to nuclear regulatory boards.
In school, his reputation for his wild experiments and obsession with chemistry was building. It was all he ever talked about and the teachers began to worry.
“His dream in life was to collect a sample of every element on the periodic table,” David’s former physics teacher said. “I don’t know about you, but my dream at that age was to buy a car.”
His strained relationship with his father finally came to a boiling point after his father and stepmother awoke to the shaking of an explosion in their basement.
His father ran frantically downstairs and found David lying semiconscious on the floor due to a red phosphorus accident. With his father livid, he banned David from experimenting with chemicals again. But it was too late, David had already identified his life’s goal.
Without hesitation, David immediately moved out to his mom’s house and built a new laboratory in his mother’s potting shed.
Although his mom wasn’t as strict as his father, she began to worry and ask him what he was doing when he’d emerge from the shed in a gas mask. But whenever she’d ask, his reply was as strange as his behavior.
“One of these days we’re gonna run out of oil”, David said. He’d continue to give a complicated answer, full of science jargon while avoiding his mother’s eye contact. Something wasn’t right.
His mom backed away, thinking that he was up to nothing more than some harmless high school science experiments. She was wrong.
It was 2 am on Friday night when David’s mom heard a loud shuffling in her shed. She got up to look out the window and saw her son carrying something huge out, wrapped up in tin foil and a black bag.
She opened the window, planning to yell at him but a foul smell stopped her dead in her tracks. It was like nothing she ever smelt before.
Out of reflex, she shut the window to catch her breath. What was her son up to? She watched as he struggled to carry the offending object into the boot of her car.
A bad feeling washed over her – and she wasn’t the only one. Across the street, a neighbor called the authorities. He knew he was up to something but he had no idea, just how dangerous this something was.
When the police stopped David, he was in a state of panic. He intended to drive to a desolate place and drop the object off there.
David had built a radioactive reactor that was fully detectable a whopping two blocks from his laboratory. The radioactivity that leaked from this science experiment was off the charts. It was the kind of stuff people fled Chernobyl for.
In November of the previous year, David had been arrested after there had been multiple reports that troubled youths were stealing tires in Clinton Township, Michigan.
The police searched his car and upon closer inspection, they had come across a toolbox full of radioactive materials. This alerted state radiological experts and they went on to search David’s mother’s shed which he had later confessed to using as his personal laboratory.
The police asked David to show them what was under the tin foil. He tried to explain to them that it was radioactive and no one should go near it.
Immediately, they called for a SWAT team and brought David to the police station. The police and SWAT team then showed up at his laboratory and were blown away by what they saw.
David’s laboratory was full of illegal materials which he attained by assuming a false identity as a physics teacher.
His radioactive experiment left officials to declare the area unsafe and the whole neighborhood had to be evacuated for health and safety reasons. What happened to David?
The authorities could not believe the amount of radioactive material that had been uncovered. They found 1,000 times the amount of radiation, secured it, and called the Environmental Protection Agency.
On a morning in June 1996, agents wearing moon suits broke the shed apart, bolted up David’s other science materials, sent it to Utah, and buried it in the desert.
David was soon reprimanded for carrying out such a dangerous experiment and costing the city $60,000 to clean up the radioactive materials that lingered in his neighborhood.
David put 40,000 locals at risk, but luckily everyone escaped from this catastrophe unharmed. These days, David tries to continue his love for science in a safer way.
Now at 37, David’s obsession and love for science and experiments have not gone away. David, who pores over hours of scientific research has not changed from the teenage version of himself.
“My experiments are all on paper these days, but I still like to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world today.”
David is not an academic. Although he speaks with an air of a retired academic, he is not, unfortunately for some, retired at all.
David’s enthusiasm for science is undiminished. “I still want to break barriers, I have this idea to create a lightbulb that glows for 100 years,” he says.
As David sits down to an interview, he admits: “Look, there may have been a few safety issues, of course.”
“But,” he insists, “the whole $60,000 Superfund clear-up was a total overreaction. I was just building a simple model reactor and I never saw that the shed had begun glowing.”
David says that the experiments he did were for a good cause. He had been trying to earn his Boy Scout Atomic Energy merit badge.
He says, “How was I supposed to earn the most awesome badge ever if I didn’t do all those experiments? The other kids in the troop didn’t do it, sure, but I did because I wanted it.”
David’s father, Kenneth, had suggested that he join the Boy Scouts in 1994. His father thought it would give him some discipline and purpose.
However, where other boys learned survival skills of how to make a fire and patch a bicycle tire, David was yearning for something more. He says, “I guess the way I looked at it is I just wanted to invent something, I wanted to go the extra step.”
David became the first scout in the history of Troop 371 in Clinton Township to earn a merit badge in Atomic Energy.
His early childhood ambition was to have a sample of every element on the periodic table. This was the norm for David, a very different norm from all the other kids and everyone else. And it still is.
For David, it’s a struggle to make friends. He says it’s difficult to find people to talk to or who he can speak to about science or any other of his interests.
“I do have some friends I talk to, though,” he says. He communicates with an owner of a nuclear store who once worked in Area 51 and a nuclear engineer out in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
As a student at Chippewa High School, David played baseball and soccer, he even still has some soccer trophies that are displayed in this home in Utica, Michigan.
But to him, of course, he always thought that playing sports was a waste of time. It was science that really caught his attention.
About his science obsession, David says it all started with astronomy. He loved the planets and always dreamed that one day he would fly to the Moon or Mars.
Then at age seven, he became fascinated with Spiderman comics and Peter Parker – a mild-mannered guy who then gets bitten by an irradiated spider. This opened up David’s world to science.
After the scandal that rocked David and his family, he decided to join the Navy. “I went before a judge and my dad and attorney spoke to him and that’s what they decided.”
With a twist of irony, he became an undesignated seaman on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. But then things took a turn.
David was honorably discharged on medical grounds. He was arrested again after falling in with the wrong crowd.
He was caught stealing smoke detectors in an apartment building. He had hoped to extract the radioactive materials housed in the devices.
David has since cleaned up his life and is currently on his third degree at Macomb Community College. His first degree was in Applied Science, his second was in Communications and Performing Arts and now he is studying Automotive Engineering.
He feels confident that his combined knowledge in these respective fields might come together in some way in time.
Disclaimer: To protect the privacy of those depicted, some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed and are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events, places, or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.