Mark Daniel, an IT consultant from Atlanta, abandoned his big city digs a year ago to join his girlfriend, Vicky Goddard, on a 10-acre farm in Waverly Hall, Ga.
Surrounded by poultry and produce, Daniel adapted to the lifestyle, selling vegetables and homemade goods weekly at the Midland Community Farmers Market and helping Goddard with gardens in the Covenant Woods retirement community and at the Wounded Warrior Project. He even cooked for the wounded soldiers at the outreach program on River Road.
But Daniel’s good fortune took a drastic detour on a hot day in July when a farm explosion rocked the idyllic landscape. He walked away with second-degree burns on 90 percent of his face and head, and second- and third-degree burns on 40 percent of the rest of his body.
Since then, the 41-year-old man has had five surgeries and extensive skin grafting to treat the injuries.
The incident occurred on July 24 when Daniel was clearing brush on the farm. He said it’s something he does often, but he was scheduled to leave town on a business trip the next morning and was in a hurry.
“Normally, I would use a big propane blow torch that I use to control brush fires and clear that out,” Daniel said. “My backup would have been a little bit of diesel fluid, which I’ve used before very safely.”
That morning Daniel was out of both fuels, so he used a little bit of gasoline.
“I put the gasoline on the brush, set the gas can about 10 feet away and the fire lit, no problem,” he said. “By the time I walked back to the gas can, I was able to see the gas vapors flash as they came in contact with the fire. And within a micro-second, the gas vapors flashed back up to the gas can. It was a plastic, 5-gallon can, there were probably two-gallons of gas left in it.
“I had just enough time to look at the gas can and realize what was about to happen, even though there was nothing I could do about it,” he continued. “And the can blew. It turned into a 1,400 degree fireball right in my face. ... And it happened just like that, I mean within a second, in a blink of an eye, it went off, and it was over.”
Daniel said he was wearing an Under Armour T-shirt and shorts, both made of polyester, and they melted.
“I didn’t get actual gasoline on me to continue burning; it was a fireball that flashed around me,” he said. “So, my clothes didn’t catch on fire. They just melted in some places but didn’t damage the skin underneath the clothes. That was the really lucky part. So my torso and my back didn’t get burned.”
Goddard said she and her daughter were home working on a computer when they saw Daniel outside.
“We saw Mark (staggering) toward us smoking, literally,” she said. “The skin was peeling off his hand. It was really bad. I threw him in the car and raced down to St. Francis Hospital, where he was seen immediately.”
Goddard said physicians at St. Francis tried to control the pain as best as possible. They gave Daniel intravenous painkillers and wrapped him from head to toe in wet bandages. Then hospital personnel transported him to the burn center at Wellstar Cobb Hospital in Austell, Ga.
Goddard said it was touch and go at first, with Daniel experiencing severe swelling and heart complications. Then he had the five surgeries and skin grafting, starting with his face.
“First, they do the cadaver grafts all over to try to have the skin heal itself,” Goddard said. “Then what doesn’t heal, they’ll actually take skin from his body. So they took the rest of the skin from his thighs ... and grafted his arms, hands and legs.”
Daniel spent a month in the ICU burn unit before returning home. He said the first set of grafts on his face and head were very successful, and he’s had nearly 100 percent healing and virtually no scaring.
His arms are about 70 percent healed with some scars, and the bandages on his leg came off Monday.
“Just had my leg bandages removed and my legs are healing extraordinarily well!!,” he posted that day. “I don't have to undergo any more surgeries!!! Now on to intensive physical therapy to regain my strength!!”
Daniel said Dr. Claus Brandigi and nurses at Wellstar Cobb Hospital did an amazing job, and he will be forever grateful.
He’s also lucky that he didn’t lose vision or burn his airways during the explosion, he said, and he believes it was a miracle.
“Somehow, luck, God, whatever you want to call it, I managed to close my eyes and not breathe in at the moment of the explosion,” he said. “And so my airway and my eyes were not damaged and that probably did more to save my life than anything.”
Daniel is a partner at Deloitte Consulting in Atlanta and travels to various cities as an IT consultant. Goddard is a farmer who ran Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden at Callaway Gardens before the garden closed nearly a year ago. She is a native of Barbados, West Indies, where she managed a botanical gardens before migrating to the United States.
The couple said they met online about a year and half ago through mutual friends. They fell in love and are now engaged to be married.
“Sparks flew and it’s sort of a traditional love story,” Daniel said. “I drove down, we went on a few dates, one thing led to another and I decided we had a choice. She could relocate from Waverly Hall and the lovely 10-acre-farm to the hustle and bustle of Atlanta. Or I could relocate from the hustle and bustle of Atlanta to the 10-acre farm here. I decided to do the latter.
“So I got rid of all of the Atlanta holdings and stuff, and moved down here with her, and haven’t looked back,” he said. “I love the way of life. I love coming home from a week with clients, and being on the road, to our animals and our farm. It changed my perspective on life and it has given me sort of a place of solitude.”
The couple lives in a 116-year-old farmhouse where they grow corn, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, peppers, squash and other vegetables, as well as blueberries, pecans, pears, apples and figs. They also have ducks, chickens, goats, sheep, dogs, cats and a horse on the property.
The explosion has drawn them closer, not only to each other, but also to the greater community, the couple said. People from the Midland Community Farmers Market, the Wounded Warriors Project, Covenant Woods, Callaway Gardens and Deloitte Consulting all came to their aid.
On Aug. 10, Goddard launched a GoFundMe page and raised $4,860 of the $10,000 goal to help with medical expenses.
“We’ve had people come and help us with our animals and take our dogs and cats for fostering until we can get ourselves organized,” Goddard said. “And people from the fire department have offered to come out and mow our lawn.”
Daniel said there were a lot of difficult days, but Goddard never left his side. He said he’s grateful to her, and to all of his new neighbors.
“I really appreciate the sense of community here, and the people,” he said. “ I’ve lived all over — Atlanta, New York, places like that — and it’s really touched me how the community here has come together in a way that I’m quite positive I would have never experienced in a larger community like Atlanta.”
To donate to Daniel’s GoFundMe account, go to https://www.gofundme.com/2j4yyys