A video shot by UNC student Dawn Goodfriend shows shows a bystander trying to put out a fire at the base of the Davie Poplar on the UNC campus and then an explosion. Dawn Goodfriend
A video shot by UNC student Dawn Goodfriend shows shows a bystander trying to put out a fire at the base of the Davie Poplar on the UNC campus and then an explosion. Dawn Goodfriend

Orange County

Police: Fire at UNC-Chapel Hill, suspicious car in Carrboro linked; suspect in custody

By Joe Johnson, Colin Warren-Hicks And Tammy Grubb

jjohnson@heraldsun.com

cwarrenhicks@heraldsun.com

tgrubb@heraldsun.com

November 02, 2017 03:56 PM

UPDATED November 03, 2017 08:44 AM

CHAPEL HILL

One man was arrested and a professor injured Thursday afternoon after an explosion scorched a famous tree on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

Fire and rescue crews responded to a call near the Old Well at about 3:30 p.m. The university said its police force was investigating the explosion of a small detonation device at the Davie Poplar in McCorkle Place. They closed Cameron Avenue to through traffic between South Columbia and Raleigh streets.

A video showing a fire at the base of the landmark tulip poplar was widely circulated on social media. It was shot near Cameron Avenue and showed a man stomping the fire when the explosion occurred. Students at the scene said the man was trying to kick dirt on the fire.

Town of Chapel Hill spokesman Ran Northam confirmed a professor was stomping out the fire when something exploded, causing minor injuries to his face and hands.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for unlimited digital access to our website, apps, the digital newspaper and more

Social media posts identified the man as professor Dan Reichart, who teaches in the physics and astronomy department.

Christopher Clemens, senior associate dean for Natural Sciences, said he could not confirm the man’s name “because this incident involves medical treatment as a patient.”

A man identified as UNC professor Dan Reichart wipes his forehead as he recovers from an explosion at the base of the Davie Poplar on the campus of UNC. Reichart was trying to extinguish a fire allegedly set by another man at the tree when there was an explosion Thursday afternoon, Nov. 2, 2017. A suspect was arrested a short time after the explosion.
Evan White

Meanwhile Thursday, police were called in to a possible bomb in a car in Carrboro. Police closed West Weaver Street to traffic about 15 minutes later and tweeted that they were investigating a suspicious package.

Carrboro Police Capt. Chris Atack said Thursday’s incidents are related and said UNC-CH called them about the vehicle in Carrboro, across the street from the PNC Bank on Lindsay Street. They found a 2011 red Honda Accord registered to the suspect during their investigation, according to Atack.

Carrboro police investigate suspicious package in car

Streets in Carrboro have reopened following an investigation of a suspicious package in a car Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017.

Bernard Thomas bthomas@heraldsun.com

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office dispatched its Hazardous Devices Unit to assist the Carrboro police. It is one of 15 bomb squads in North Carolina.

Durham's bomb squad sets off "disruptive charge" in Carrboro car

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office Hazardous Devices Unit worked alongside the Carborro Police Department to handle a rumored car bomb in the 2011 red Honda Accord registered to the suspect in custody for the explosion at the Davie Poplar in McCorkle Place at UNC-Chapel Hill. The unit detonated a "disruptive charge" in the trunk of the car, resulting in a loud pop.

Rob Gourley rgourley@heraldsun.com

Late Thursday afternoon, the sheriff’s office set off a disrupter charge to clear the contents of the vehicle’s trunk.

Businesses had been evacuated from Main Street at the railroad tracks to Carrboro Town Hall before the bomb squad was deployed.

UNC's Davie Poplar scene of fire and explosion

A fire and explosion at the base of the Davie Poplar on the campus of UNC Thursday afternoon, Nov. 2, 2017 in Chapel Hill, NC.

William Freeman

Eyewitness accounts

Graduate student Alexandra Jones, 24, was crossing Cameron Avenue with friends when they noticed the small fire at the Davie Poplar.

“There were people standing around looking at it,” she said. “I think everyone was confused.”

They saw a naked man lying on his stomach facing the tree who began to yell.

“I hope it burns!” Jones said the man shouted.

“He said, ‘Satan, Satan, Satan,’ like that,” she said.

Senior David Doochin said he was outside the nearby Steele Building when the explosion occurred.

“It wasn’t like a gunshot. It was kind of in the realm of fireworks or just like a sonic explosion,” he said.

Not long after the naked man started chanting “Satan,” Jones heard “a loud ‘pop!’”

“There were billows of smoke,” she said.

Man yells 'Hail Satan' after explosion at Davie Poplar

James Hunt recorded this video as he approached a fire burning at the base of the Davie Poplar on the campus of UNC Thursday afternoon. Shortly after an explosion from erupted from the fire, the voice of a man shouting "Hail Satan' can be heard.

James Hunt

The man stood up, put on a forest green sweater and khaki pants and began to run away, she said.

“We called 911,” Jones said.

While on the phone with the police, Jones said, an officer ordered the man to “Halt.”

The man lay down on his stomach on the brick sidewalk near South Building with his arms and legs spread wide, she said, “like a starfish.”

Seven police cars, two fire trucks and an ambulance came with a stretcher, Doochin said. The man was placed on it, “and they took him away.”

Investigators at the scene of fire and explosion at UNC's Davie Poplar

Investigators examine the scene at a fire and explosion at the base of the Davie Poplar on the campus of UNC Thursday afternoon, Nov. 2, 2017 in Chapel Hill, NC.

Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

About the Davie Poplar

Legends surround the Davie Poplar.

The most enduring has it that if the tree falls then UNC-CH will fall too.

Another says any couple who kiss while seated on the stone bench beneath the boughs will surely marry.

A story passed down through the decades says a committee from the university’s first Board of Governors headed by Revolutionary War general William Richardson Davie were searching for a site for the university when they stopped to rest beneath a giant tulip poplar near a ridge called New Hope Chapel.

The tree, estimated to be more than 300 years old, has survived multiple hurricanes and lightning strikes.

For fear of losing the tree one day, Davie Poplar Jr. was grown from a 1918 cutting from the original tree.

And later Davie Poplar III was grown from a Davie Poplar seed.

Both offspring trees were planted nearby.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Joe Johnson: 919-419-6678, @JEJ_HSNews

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg