Exclusive: Explosion survivor breaks his silence

Ashley Traylor/The News

Story by Ashley Traylor, Interim News Editor

The former Residential Director who was injured in the James H. Richmond explosion, Dakota Fields, and his attorney, Bo Neely of Neely, Brien, Wilson & Toombs spoke exclusively to The Murray State News.

June 28, 2017

Some time between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., Fields woke up. He said the time he woke up each morning varied, but that morning, he had many errands to run. He attended his exit interview with human resources and finalized paperwork with public safety and the bursar’s office, as his last day employed by the university drew near. Fields had already accepted a position a few months prior to the explosion at Western Illinois University.

Around noon, he began loading belongings into his car. Shortly after, he ate lunch and visited with his girlfriend and her mom. After they dropped him back off at New Richmond around 4 p.m., he loaded more of his possessions up, and moved his car to one of his designated parking spots.

About 15 minutes later, around 4:15 p.m., Fields stretched out on his couch to take a nap.  

“I couldn’t get comfortable because I had a crick in my neck,” he said. “I went to my bedroom and next thing I know I woke up in a helicopter.”

Knowledge of gas problems

A groundskeeper struck a natural gas regulator while mowing the lawn, according to employee written statements obtained by The News. Gas services were turned off, until the regulator was replaced around noon.

“I had no idea there was any leaks in the building,” Fields said. He confirmed he never made a report prior to the explosion as he was never alerted to the odor of gas.

“I don’t know whether it was because I got used to it or what, but I didn’t smell anything that morning,” Fields said. “No one came into the building to let us know [about the regulator being hit or that there was a gas leak]. There were painters and university employees leaving the building all day working on stuff. They didn’t smell anything to my knowledge.”

In contrast, it was reported that a painter, who was inside working on New Richmond earlier in the day told his son he did smell gas, according to the official police report. Fields was unsure if he was inside the building when city employees replaced the regulator as he was not notified.

“Until The News came out and said what happened with the regulator, I was in the dark,” Fields said. “No comment from the university. Nothing.”

Fields’ prognosis

Neely said they could not comment on the injuries Fields sustained as a result of the explosion.  

“Right now, we can’t go into that,” he said. “We’ll tell you he did receive significant injuries and that’s still ongoing, an ongoing process to uncover all the injuries he sustained that day.”

Neely also said they could not comment on Fields’ current prognosis or any further treatment needed.

“We’ll be glad to assist you down the road, as more of those things come to light,” Neely said.

For Fields, he has good days and bad days.

“Every day is different,” he said. “Sometimes, I feel a little better. Sometimes, I don’t. As he [Neely] said  we are still figuring out the extent of my injuries. I feel better. Sometimes, it reoccurs that I don’t. It just varies every day.”

 University outreach

“To my knowledge, Murray State has been very helpful and forthcoming,” Neely said.

Dr. Davies privately messaged Fields on Facebook, as he said they’ve known each for a few years.

“He actually knows me by first name,” Fields said. “He messaged me and said to be strong and other encouraging things.”

During Fields’ stay at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, a member of the Board of Regents visited him.

“I think her daughter was visiting or doing something in the Vanderbilt hospital, so she came and said ‘hey’ and checked in on me,’ Fields said.

Personal belongings

Fields lost most of his personal belongings in the rubble. A picture circulated on Facebook showing two of his items left intact: his Bible and devotional. However, these items disappeared during the debris cleanup.

“We were lucky to get a journal that was destroyed in the explosion,” Fields said. “But, I don’t think I’ll get that Bible back. There was an item that was seen on the ground that was mine and someone stole it because they saw it.”

Fields considered asking the university to locate those items, but he said it’s a “lost cause,” and he replaced his Bible.

“It would be nice to have that back but it’s probably torn to shreds now anyway,” he said.

A social work group on campus created a GoFund Me page for Fields to assist financially in his recovery process. The page raised $540 in donations before it was deactivated.

Fields could not comment about what other personal property he lost, but he said he provided a list of lost belongings to the university.

Community support

Sigma Pi fraternity brothers showed their support for Fields throughout his time in the hospital. He said three fraternity brothers visited him at Vanderbilt. While more wanted to drop by, Fields said he was without a cell phone, so he did not receive their messages. Along with his fraternity brothers, the Sigma Pi chapter director collected mail and donations people sent him, which Fields said was a “blessing.”  The executive director of Sigma Pi nationally visited him, too.  

He described the support from family, friends, residents and coworkers as “phenomenal.”

“If I had a phone, it was literally just notification after notification,” Fields said. “It was really nice to hear from everybody.”

His fraternity and friends were a support system for Fields, but he said his girlfriend and her  family were also a “blessing” to him. Overall, he said he received “good support” from everyone.

A message to the residents of New Richmond

Fields wanted to send a message to his residents of New Richmond. While there were many things he wanted to say, he stressed: patience and understanding.

“All I can tell you is to just be patient because it could have been a lot worse,” Fields said. “It could have happened two months ago [from the time of the explosion] when people were still in the building. Just be patient and understanding because it could have been so much worse than what it really was.”

Fields said he is sure the university is working very hard to help the residents of New Richmond.

“Obviously, this is out of nowhere and no one could have known this was going to happen, but just be patient,” he said.

Coming Back  

Since the explosion, Fields said he has been back to New Richmond three times to see the damage to the place he once called home. For two of those visits, he said he was able to walk up to the building.

The first visit, he only passed by as he was being transported from Vanderbilt to where he stayed for part of his recovery. At that time, he said a large portion of the perimeter was fenced off.

The beginning of August marked the first time he was able to stand really close to what remains of New Richmond.

“It’s rather surreal to finally see it in person,” Fields said.

Fields’ service at Murray State

He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in human resources in December 2014. Two and half years later in May 2017, he graduated with his master’s in postsecondary education.

Fields served as a residence director for two years. Prior to this, he worked as a desk worker for four years and was also a graduate assistant in the office of Student Disability Services.

In April 2017, he accepted a new job, as the complex director at Western Illinois University. Fields’ last scheduled day at Murray State was June 30.

“That’s why I had my exit counseling that morning and my last official day was suppose to be that Friday, but never got there because of the explosion,” Fields said.

What’s Next?

Fields had no comment to whether he felt the university could have prevented the blast

When asked if he is seeking legal action against the university, Fields responded, “I can’t answer that at the moment.”

He added he would like to know the plan moving forward with New Richmond.

“I would really like to hear from the university to see what they are going to do with New Richmond,” Fields said. “Just pure curiosity, that was my home for the past year.”