HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A former UNC student charged with starting a fire that resulted in an explosion on UNC’s campus made his first court appearance Thursday.
Joshua Edwards spent several days in a hospital for mental evaluation following the incident on November 2.
Deputies booked Edwards into the county jail late Thursday afternoon after a judge set bond at $200,000 and assigned a public defender to represent the 24-year-old.
He faces charges of:
- Felony count of “malicious use of explosives to inflict injury”
- Felony count of “malicious use of explosives to damage property”
- Felony count of “assembling a weapon of mass destruction”
- Felony count of “setting fire to grass / grassland”
- Felony count of “assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury”
- Felony count of “filing a false police report”
UNC astronomy professor Dan Reichart suffered severe burns while attempting to extinguish flames at the trunk of the legendary Davie Poplar tree at the university’s historic McCorkle Place.
“The story is if the Davie Poplar falls, so does UNC,” Reichart said. “I wasn’t thinking about that at the time, but according to legend, I guess I have a small part in the legend now.”
Reichart left his office to buy an ice cream and pick up his mail from the campus post office when he saw flames. He didn’t realize at the time that the tree on fire was the Davie Poplar. He said it was about 30 seconds of his way to walk over to see what was going on.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it,” he said.
“I was an Eagle Scout, so fire is something I’m familiar with. It was getting kind of big, but I didn’t think it was too big that I couldn’t stomp it out or kick it away from the tree. So I just approached it and started kicking dirt on it, trying to kick it away,” Reichart said.
“But instead of dying down it got stronger and stronger, and very fast, and I was getting ready to step back because something wasn’t right. There was some kind of fuel source in there.”
A student filmed Reichart as he stomped on the fire until suddenly, there was an explosion. The student’s cell phone panned away during the blast, and when it returned, Reichart was no longer in view.
He’s seen the video and said he remembers taking two or three steps backward. However, he landed about 30 feet away.
Reichart’s field of study is explosions involving stars, and some of his colleagues have joked that he should use this example in a lecture.
“I know how far I was thrown, so we could figure out the force. I got burned on the back of my head, which means the fireball was faster than me. There’s all sorts of good physics we could do with that,” he said. “I can do it with a laugh. I’ve tried to keep a good attitude and some humor about this and I think it helps a lot.”
His hands are still wrapped in gauze but his palms and fingertips are uncovered. He’s able to type and communicate with students and other faculty members, though his doctors will not permit him to return to campus until January due to concerns about infections. Reichart said he lost at least 10 percent of his skin. However, he no longer has to wear bandages on his head or neck, and he expects his hands to heal enough to be bare by the beginning of December.
Reichart is ready to get back to work and he has already been able to forgive the suspect in this case, though he still wants a conviction and punishment.
“I don’t hold any ill will against the person who set the fire. Clearly he’s suffering from some mental issues. I do believe he needs to get the help he needs, but he’s also going to have to be responsible for his actions,” he said.
“I’m very fortunate in so many ways. The explosive could have had shrapnel in it. I could have inhaled it. All sorts of things could have gone far worse.”
His recovery is going well, and he’s received a lot of ice cream in the two weeks since his initial walk to get some.
Reichart is also trying to make what he calls lemon-aid from a bad situation. He is not allowed to shave while his face heals, so he is connecting his recovery with No Shave November. Participants in the fundraiser for cancer research solicit donations from friends as they grow mustaches and beards. Reichart and his wife donated $100 and set a goal of $1,000. At 5 p.m. on Nov. 16, donations to his fundraising page totaled $8,130.