UNC professor Dan Reichart tries to extinguish a fire allegedly set by a man who was later arrested when a device explodes at the base of the Davie Poplar on the UNC campus Thursday afternoon, Nov. 2, 2017. Reichart is being treated for burns, and the suspect is in custody and being evaluated. Video by Dawn Goodfriend, Photo by Evan White
UNC professor Dan Reichart tries to extinguish a fire allegedly set by a man who was later arrested when a device explodes at the base of the Davie Poplar on the UNC campus Thursday afternoon, Nov. 2, 2017. Reichart is being treated for burns, and the suspect is in custody and being evaluated. Video by Dawn Goodfriend, Photo by Evan White

Orange County

UNC IDs Chapel Hill bomb suspect; burned professor being treated at hospital

By Tammy Grubb

tgrubb@heraldsun.com

November 03, 2017 09:42 AM

UPDATED November 05, 2017 09:21 PM

CHAPEL HILL

Police have identified the man who allegedly caused an explosive fire Thursday on the UNC campus as Joshua Daniel Edwards.

Edwards, 24, was in UNC Public Safety custody Friday but had not been charged as of late Friday afternoon, police spokesman Randy Young said in an email Friday. Edwards, who was taken to UNC Hospitals for a mental evaluation, could face arson and other charges, he said.

UNC News Service confirmed Edwards is a former biology student at UNC who withdrew from classes in 2016.

UNC Public Safety took Edwards into custody shortly after an explosion scorched the landmark tree Davie Poplar on the UNC campus. UNC professor Dan Reichart suffered minor burns when a small detonation device exploded as he was attempting to kick dirt on the fire and put it out.

Never miss a local story.

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

Reichart, who lives in Hillsborough, said Friday morning he could be at UNC Hospitals for a few days being treated for first- and second-degree burns to the face and arms.

He’s not in any pain but will have surgery to apply an artificial biological membrane to help the skin underneath heal, he said. His doctor Bruce Cairns told him there shouldn’t be any scarring, he said.

Cairns, a burn trauma surgeon, leads the UNC Burn Center, “so I’m being taken care of by the best,” Reichart said.

A UNC Grounds Services technician was to have applied a preventive treatment Friday afternoon to protect the Davie Poplar from insects, Young said. The university’s arborist also has examined Davie Poplar and thinks the damage is superficial, he said.

“I’m confident the tree will be fine,” said Tom Bythell, University Arborist.

Firefighters and police responded to the call near the Old Well at about 3:30 p.m. Thursday. UNC police are investigating the explosion, which shut down Cameron Avenue for several hours.

UNC police contacted Carrboro police shortly after responding to the Davie Poplar fire Thursday to alert them to a possible bomb in a car in a public parking lot on West Weaver Street.

Carrboro and other area law enforcement evacuated the downtown area in Carrboro and closed roads around the scene until the Durham County Hazardous Devices Unit – one of 15 bomb squads in North Carolina – could use a charge to blow open the vehicle’s trunk. Officers did not find anything suspicious.

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

Reichart, a UNC astronomy professor for 15 years, said he was taking a break from work at Morehead Planetarium and heading out for an ice cream bar when he saw the Davie Poplar burning. The fire started to grow, so he ran over to help.

“I was an Eagle Scout growing up, so I had experience building fires, although it was getting kind of big, it didn’t seem too big to kick out or stomp or kick away from the tree,” Reichart said. “But it accelerated. I thought it was just simple arson. I had no idea there was some kind of explosive device in there, or else I wouldn’t have approached it.”

He was there long enough to see what looked like a guitar case and a backpack when the fire exploded. The shockwave pushed him away from the tree.

“I saw the video last night for the first time,” he said. “It took a while for me to find myself after the explosion. I was like, where did I go? I was about 30 feet to the right of it apparently. The fireball engulfed me, because I’ve got burns to the back of my head, too. It went faster than I did.”

UNC professor Dan Reichart wipes his forehead as he recovers from an explosion at the base of the Davie Poplar on the UNC campus. 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.
Evan White

Students who saw the explosion ran over to help, dousing the professor’s arms with water from their water bottles.

“I never saw the guy who set it. He was gone by the time I arrived on the scene,” Reichart said.

He would do it again, he said.

“If it were to happen again, I probably would think a little about could there be an explosive device in there,” Reichart said. “That aside, not knowing there’s an explosive device in there, I don’t regret going and trying to kick it out.”

He’s still waiting for the ice cream, he 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

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb