Health Team

Student burned in Franklin Street bonfire

Posted April 8, 2009 4:10 p.m. EDT
Updated April 9, 2009 4:31 p.m. EDT

The basketball fans who celebrated in the streets of Chapel Hill this past weekend adhered to the common practice of setting fires. Some people got too close, and a joyous moment ended with a visit to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center.

Giddy fans may feel invincible – like the flames of a bonfire can't touch them.

“The problem is, there's no such thing as a small bonfire, and there's no such thing as a minor burn injury,” said Dr. Bruce Cairns, is a surgeon in the burn center at UNC Hospitals

Cairns is a Tar Heel fan, but his excitement over the Final Four was tempered by an expectation that he would treat students for burn injuries after the fires went out.

Andrew Madlon, a freshman at the University of North Carolina, found himself crowd surfing on Franklin Street after the Tar Heels’ semifinal victory Saturday over Villanova.

“I was sort of up there for five or 10 seconds, and the crowd just ran out and I got dropped into the bonfire,” he recalled.

Madlon’s right forearm landed on the hot coals. “I actually didn't think it was that bad at first,” he said.

He had second-degree burns. Dirt from the coals lodged in his skin, leading to an infection that required surgery and a type of biological Band-Aid made from pig skin.

Cairns said Madlon’s reaction is a common one. “They say, ‘Well I didn't know it could be so bad … it didn't hurt so much in the beginning.’”

Cairns said the burn center treated eight fans for Final Four revelry-related burns. More could be injured and, like Madlon, not initially realize the severity of their burns. Many burn victims wait to seek care until they have an infection, Cairns said.

The hospital works with the university and the town of Chapel Hill to try to discourage bonfires during post-game celebrations. Cairns said he worries that media coverage and images of bonfires – without comment about the dangers – only help fuel the dangerous tradition making more burns likely.

Madlon said he also worries that student habits will be hard to break. “When you get thousands of people out into that small of an area and you have people jumping over them, you have to expect something's going to go wrong,” he said.

Madlon was released from the burn center Wednesday, but he faces follow-up care for a few weeks to make sure he won't need a skin graft.