Survivor of '07 explosion talks about recovery facing Mitchell manWatching him step down from the cab of his John Deere tractor, there isn’t much that physically distinguishes Darrick Van Dyke from the average farmer in Jerauld County. But under the jeans and long-sleeve shirt, there are scars from the night almost three years ago that left Van Dyke standing dazed with severe burns on Dakota Avenue in Wessington Springs after his house exploded.
By: Austin Kaus, The Daily Republic
Watching him step down from the cab of his John Deere tractor, there isn’t much that physically distinguishes Darrick Van Dyke from the average farmer in Jerauld County.
But under the jeans and long-sleeve shirt, there are scars from the night almost three years ago that left Van Dyke standing dazed with severe burns on Dakota Avenue in Wessington Springs after his house exploded.
The Oct. 12, 2007, propane explosion left Van Dyke with second- and third-degree burns on about 60 percent of his body.
Following a medically induced coma, skin grafts and intense physical therapy, Van Dyke has done his best to adjust to life after the explosion, channeling what he says is a natural stubbornness.
“When you’re burned, it’s the battle of your life,” said Van Dyke, 31. “There’s no give up in me.”
But even though Van Dyke is proud of the progress and recovery he has made, it’s still scary for him to hear news of two recent house explosions in the area. He knows firsthand what is in store for the survivor of a house explosion linked to natural gas in Mitchell.
Jose Aguirre suffered second- and third-degree burns on 40 percent of his body and a partially collapsed lung on Aug. 17 when his home at 718 E. Hanson Ave. exploded.
One week later, Gail Guthmiller was killed when her Menno home exploded, also because of a natural gas buildup in the structure.
Aguirre is in critical condition at Regions Hospital Burn Center in St. Paul, Minn., according to a spokeswoman there. One of Aguirre’s relatives said earlier this week that Aguirre received skin grafts on his arms. He was also reported to be sedated and on a ventilator.
“I know exactly what that guy’s going through,” Van Dyke said. “He’s got a long road ahead of him.”
After wandering into the street after his home exploded while he slept, Van Dyke was picked up by a local resident and transported to the local hospital, where someone commented that Van Dyke looked as if he’d been grinding hay because of his blackened appearance.
It wasn’t until he had a chance to focus on his injuries that the pain really kicked in, Van Dyke said.
“When I could kind of see what it was, that’s when the pain really started to hit me. It was the most excruciating pain you can ever feel.”
Van Dyke’s recovery included a six-week, medically induced coma that was designed to help him deal with the pain and allow for his injuries to be better managed.
It also kept him in a “dream state” in which his open eyes followed the movement of anyone that came into his room.
“It’s like living your life outside your body,” Van Dyke said. “I don’t know if I knew I was in the hospital.”
Even after getting off consistent pain medication, some later medication was required, such as when dead skin was removed from his body with a shower apparatus that utilizes acid.
Afterward, “you look like a red lobster,” Van Dyke said.
Thursday, Van Dyke was leaning on his tractor, preparing to take a break from harvesting to drive the short trip from his family’s field north of Woonsocket to the Lane Café for lunch with other area farmers.
His face shows barely noticeable signs of the accident, but shortened or contracted muscles, known as contractures, can be seen on his left hand. He lifts up the right leg of his jeans to show where skin was removed from his thighs and grafted onto his calves.
As a result of the procedure, Van Dyke’s legs are hairless and unable to produce sweat because the sweat glands were not contained in the grafts.
He’s more sensitive to heat after the accident and treatments. In the summer, he can feel the heat build up in his legs with nowhere to go. Long-sleeve shirts are a requirement no matter what time of year, Van Dyke said, because his skin is more sensitive to sunlight. He uses “a lot” of sunscreen if he knows he’s going to be outdoors.
“You won’t see me out on the water fishing on a 95-degree day,” Van Dyke said. “The weather affects me, but I’m pretty much my stubborn self. I can do anything I want to do.”
Still, it’s comparatively better than the 18 months Van Dyke spent wearing a compression suit, a tightly fitting body suit designed to help the healing process and reduce scarring.
“It’s extremely hot. It gives you a sense of being confined,” Van Dyke said. “It was kind of hard, but it just becomes part of your body.”
Since the accident, Van Dyke said he has concentrated on educating people about closely monitoring natural gas or propane levels in their home.
He encourages people to own a gas and carbon monoxide detector and become familiar with the appliances that use gas.
“Gas is a dangerous product,” Van Dyke said. “You should have knowledge about the safety of it.”
In June 2008, Van Dyke filed a lawsuit against CHS Inc., of Inver Grove Heights, Minn., alleging the explosion was caused by propane from CHS.
CHS initially asked for the lawsuit’s dismissal. Less than a year later, Van Dyke dropped the suit against CHS weeks after a settlement conference was scheduled, according to court documents.
Van Dyke would not comment on whether or not a settlement was reached, or on his reason for dropping the suit.
Now, years after instinctually utilizing firefighter training to protect his face during the house explosion — Van Dyke has been a member of the Wessington Springs Volunteer Fire Department for about seven years — he’s adjusted as best he can to life after the incident.
“My body will be affected for the rest of my life. You never get over it,” Van Dyke said. “You just become normal, even though, if it wouldn’t have happened to you, normal would’ve been different.”