Explosion at the Davie Poplar Tree (2017)

On the afternoon of November 3rd, 2017, I had just finished digging out from a bunch of busywork that had piled up over the semester, and decided to take an ice cream break. I left my office in Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and cut across McCorkle Place when I saw a fire at the base of the >300-year-old Davie Poplar tree. I hurried over there to see what was going on, but I couldn’t figure it out. A handful of students were standing around the tree taking video, and I noticed that one student was calling 911. The fire was running up the side of the tree, and I was worried that the canopy would catch, and that it could spread to surrounding trees too.

I was an Eagle Scout in my youth, so I have a lot of experience with fires. This one was large, but not so large that I didn’t think that I couldn’t kick it out, or at least kick it away from the tree. As I approached it, I saw a guitar case, a backpack, and what appeared to be reams of paper fueling the fire. I started to kick it all away from the tree, but noticed that the fire was hotter than it should have been, and was getting bigger too quickly. I took a step back to reevaluate, but it was too late. I had only been there 20 — 30 seconds when it exploded, with me only a yard away.

I don’t remember seeing the explosion, only being thrown back by the shock wave. I later measured how far, and it was about 20 or 30 feet. I stood up and immediately considered myself lucky. I hadn’t broken any bones, and there hadn’t been any shrapnel, so I wasn’t bleeding anywhere. I had been engulfed by the fireball, but it passed me so quickly that I didn’t have time to inhale, so I suffered no internal damage. And my glasses had protected my eyes — to this day there are flecks of debris embedded in them, so this had proved critical.

But I was burned. My face, ears, and lower arms (my sleeves were rolled up) all looked like they had a very bad sunburn — 1st and 2nd degree burns. My hair was singed shorter. And my neck was also burned, not just on the front, but also on the back — the fireball had expanded faster than I was thrown back. My left side got the brunt of it, especially my left arm, my left forehead, the left top of my head, and my left shoulder was burned through my shirt. But everywhere else, my clothes, and glasses, had protected me.

At first I felt fine, but I’m sure that was adrenaline. After that passed, I felt sick to my stomach and had to sit down.

Students who happened to be in McCorkle Place when this happened were the first responders, including some from the med school who were particularly helpful. They collected water for me to pour over the burns, so they wouldn’t get worse.

Next came the fire department, but the explosion had mostly blown out the fire. It took only one puff of a fire extinguisher to finish the job.

Then came the ambulance, which I was able to walk over to.

By this time, they had already caught the person who did this — a former UNC-Chapel Hill student who we later learned suffered from mental illness. He had apparently stripped down when he set the fire. He then put his clothes back on and left the scene, which is when I arrived. But he was recorded shouting “Hail Satan”, etc., when the explosion went off, and was apprehended almost immediately.

He told authorities that there was another explosive device in his car, which led to part of Carrboro being shut down for a few hours. But this turned out not to be the case.

We were both taken to UNC Hospitals’ emergency room, and were actually just a few curtains from each other for the next few hours.

First I called my wife, Lois. Then I called my then-administrative assistant, Antoinette Setari, who I knew would take care of everything department-side for me — I knew I was going to miss some classes. Then I received a call, from our then-Chancellor, Carol Folt. She was great, and asked if she could speak to Bruce Cairns on my behalf. Bruce is the Director of UNC Hospitals’ famed burn center, and a former Chair of the Faculty to boot. Bruce was down there minutes later, and I was scheduled for surgery the next day — probably three days earlier than I would have been had Chancellor Folt not intervened. I normally don’t think highly of administrators, but she’s the exception in my book (and not just because of her actions that day — she’s an all-around class act.)

That evening, up in my hospital room after my wife had gone home and all the hubbub died down, I turned on the local news to see if anything else had been learned and had the surreal experience of watching myself being blown up on TV. I hadn’t seen the video yet, and won’t embed it here, but you can find it in the linked news articles if you want to see it. My doctors later told me they were actually very excited about the video — they treat burn victims all the time, but never have video of the incident. In my case, the had multiple.

The next day I went in for surgery. As I was coming to, I quickly realized that something wasn’t right. Everyone was being extra cautious around me, and having muffled conversations that they clearly didn’t want me to hear. Even my wife. I figured something had gone wrong…and something did go wrong, but fortunately not the procedure.

Apparently, partway through the procedure, I woke up, stood up on the operating table, and announced to my doctors and nurses, “I don’t know what the hell you people think you’re doing, but I’m getting out of here!” After which I began walking, and would have walked right off the end of the table had they not essentially tackled me and drugged me up again. They told my wife that they had never seen anything like it. And I have no memory of it at all!

But the surgery itself went fine. Except that I lost a lot more skin than they had anticipated. Going in, they told me that I would lose 2 — 3% of my skin. Coming out, I learned that they actually had to take 10 — 11%. But fortunately, I didn’t need any grafts. They covered the exposed areas with a bio-membrane, made from pig bladder, to help them heal better/faster. This included my face, which apparently is not usual practice. But I appreciate the above-and-beyond effort that Bruce, and my surgeon, Felicia Williams, went to.

I looked like hell, but was off pain meds the next day, and was looking for ways to keep busy. I had three fingertips not wrapped in bandages, so was able to slowly poke out messages on Facebook, and answer emails.

I had done a few phone interviews, but the local news media were clammering for an on-camera interview, either live or by video. Live was out of the question — I needed to avoid people to reduce risk of infection. Nor was I ready for a video interview — I looked really bad, and probably worse than I really was because of the bio-membrane.

However, I realized that I had an opportunity to make a little good come of this, so I took it. It was the beginning of November, and because of the bio-membrane I wasn’t going to be shaving anytime soon, so I set up a No-Shave November campaign, which benefits cancer research. I told the media that they could use a fairly gruesome post-surgery selfie that I had taken, but only if they linked to the campaign. I donated $100 to kick it off, hoping to raise $1000. In the end, we raise nearly $9000!

This, and the outpouring of support in general, was pretty amazing. In the end, I couldn’t eat all of the ice cream that everyone sent, so I gifted it to the nursing staff, who had also been great.

I especially appreciated a gift basket that a pair of my students sent. It included a card that reworked a recent exam question that I had given (below). I also loved the giant cards that so many of the physics students signed.

Five days after arriving at the hospital, I was dismissed, though I wasn’t allowed to return to teaching until the spring semester began in January, because of risk of infection. I am grateful to Fabian Heitsch and Nick Law for covering my last month of classes. And I was pleased to surprise the students by doing the last lecture of the semester, on Drake’s Equation, remotely by video.

Not long after returning home, I learned that I was being awarded the Old North State Award from the NC Governor’s office, at UNC-Chapel Hill’s next Board of Trustees meeting. Again, I couldn’t attend, but I sent them a “thumbs-up” selfie, which they projected, and my wife got to accept the award, and meet Chancellor Folt and a few of the Trustees — she deserves recognition too, having to take care of my grumpy ass throughout the recovery!

A while afterward, I got a surprise call from Raleigh. I had been getting spammy calls from Raleigh all day, so I answered the phone with an annoyed, “What?!?” Turns out it was Governor Roy Cooper… Despite the strange start, we had a good conversation, and even talked politics a little.

Within a few weeks, I had graduated from bandages to compression sleeves and gloves, and by the next summer I was down to just gloves. By the following February, my face was declared 100% back to normal — maybe even younger looking than before the explosion! — and my right and left arms were declared 99% and 98% back to normal. Good enough for me!

The rest of the story has to do with the young man who set the fire/explosive device. We parted the emergency room at about the same time. I went to the burn center, he went to the psych ward. I was dismissed five days later. He was dismissed about a week after that, and moved to Orange County Jail, just a couple blocks down from my house in Hillsborough.

At his first appearance, he smiled at the news cameras and told everyone to “hug a tree”.

He was charged with six felony accounts — malicious use of explosives to inflict injury, malicious use of explosives to damage property, assembling a weapon of mass destruction, setting fire to grass or a grassland, assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, and filing a false police report — and was looking at potentially a decade or more in prison.

He spent the next nearly two months in Orange County Jail, after which the judge changed his bail amount from $200,000 secured to $1,000,000 unsecured, and released him into the custody of his father so he could receive mental health care. I watched this hearing (his third) by video, and he appeared much more withdrawn. And his father seemed like a genuinely good person doing the best he could to navigate a nightmare scenario.

Over the following 13+ months, the DA’s office reached out to me on a number of occasions. Although the young man had mental health issues, so do most people who find themselves in the criminal justice system. The question was whether he had been in sufficient control of his faculties that day. In the end, both side’s experts agreed that he hadn’t.

I was almost completely healed by that point, and decided to attend the final hearing. I sat near him for the better part of an hour without even recognizing him. He had grown a beard and came across as a very different man. I don’t think he was really aware of my presence, or possibly anyone’s. The whole time he was deep into a book about the brain and consciousness — actually by the same author that I was reading at the time.

He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and immediately committed to Central Regional Hospital in Butner, NC.

I put out the following statement:

Statement regarding Joshua Edwards being found not guilty for his actions at the Davie Poplar tree:

From Mr. Edwards' actions on the day of the incident, November 2, 2017, it was clear that he suffered from some degree of mental illness. But so do a great many defendants in our criminal justice system. The question has always been was he in sufficient control of his faculties to be held responsible for his actions.

If so, it is my opinion, as well as that of Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman who prosecuted the case, that what happened that day, at the Davie Poplar tree, could only be described as an act of domestic terrorism, and would have to be prosecuted as such.

However, two separate experts have now carried out extensive reviews of Mr. Edwards' medical history, from both before and after the incident, of eye-witness accounts from the day of the incident, and have interviewed Mr. Edwards personally. Both experts -- one for the defense and one for the prosecution -- reached the same conclusion, that Mr. Edwards was not in sufficient control of his faculties to be held responsible for his actions. As such, he has been found not guilty on all counts by reason of insanity.

In my time at Carolina, I have worked with a number of students who struggle with mental illness. For some, it was manageable, and they had successful careers both at Carolina and afterward. For some, it was too much and they had to leave Carolina early. For all of them, it has been, and likely will always be, a lifelong struggle, with both better times, and worse.

It is my opinion that Mr. Edwards was having one of these "worse" times, and for this my heart goes out to him, and to his family.

I was fortunate that day. The explosion was shrapnel-free. My glasses protected my eyes and probably saved my sight. I suffered burns to over 10% of my body, but thanks to the quick actions of students who were there, emergency medical technicians, the doctors and nurses of UNC's burn center, and Chancellor Folt, who called me within minutes of my arrival at the emergency room and personally made arrangements for my care -- I am now back to normal.

It is my genuine hope and desire that Mr. Edwards continues to receive the help and care that he needs, and is supported by a community as I was. I spoke with his father briefly after today's ruling and expressed this sentiment to him.

I ask that no one at UNC be disappointed in this ruling, or harbor any ill will against Mr. Edwards. Often life is not black and white, and especially in such times compassion goes further than judgement.

Dr. Dan Reichart
Professor of Physics and Astronomy
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill