A scaffolder who was “dead for around two minutes” after being electrocuted and set on fire while collecting scrap metal from an abandoned steelworks is urging young people not to turn to crime in hard times.
Darren Harris, from Manchester, was badly burnt after being electrocuted in 2020.
After losing his job during lockdown, the 29-year-old tried to raise money by stealing scrap metal.
But he paid the ultimate price and now has life-changing injuries.
Waiting on reconstructive surgery, Mr Harris hopes his experience will inspire others.
He told his story to Sky’s Beth Rigby this week.
Warning: This article contains images and details of severe burns that some may find distressing.
How lockdown made him ‘desperate for cash’
After working in construction since high school, Mr Harris began working as a scaffolder from the age of around 18 until he was 28.
When the coronavirus pandemic came around in 2020, Mr Harris found himself in financial difficulty since he was not up-to-date with his tax return.
“I didn’t get any help with a self-employment grant or getting furloughed,” he said, “so I just basically, throughout the lockdown period, I was struggling with finances […] and everything was shot.”
Living at his mother’s house and not being able to work “had a big impact”, and he began borrowing money from friends and family because he was in a “desperate situation financially”.
In his younger years, Mr Harris broke the law at times. He explained he would steal scrap metal from old abandoned buildings – places that were getting ready for demolition.
Mr Harris said he “left that behind” and never did it again for several years as he was working as a scaffolder.
But when the lockdown came, he said he “had no choice but to go back to that sort of work to provide what went on the table – and unfortunately I made a very bad judgement”.
He added that he was “desperate for cash” to live and that his dog was unwell, reiterating he felt he “had no choice”.
The night that changed his life forever
One night in November 2020, as he was collecting scraps from abandoned steelworks in Wolverhampton, Mr Harris’s life would unknowingly change forever.
He stumbled across a switchboard and electric mains, presuming they were switched off as the building was set to be demolished.
He said: “I was doing what I was doing, collecting work, off the ground and stuff like that. And then there was like an electrical control room. And I saw the doors wide open, so I just had a bit of a nose.
“There were like copper bars inside the actual machine.”
Mr Harris explained that because everything was open and anyone could just walk in, he presumed everything was off because he could not see any lights.
“I didn’t hear noises… the doors were wide open,” he said. “I just presumed it was off, and I could sort of help myself.”
Mr Harris placed his hand on a live copper bar and was instantly catapulted across the room after being struck by an 11,000-volt shock.
He said he cannot find the words to explain the feeling, but believes he was “dead for around two minutes”.
‘I woke up and ran for my life’
“I catapulted and bounced off the wall and the ceiling, then landed on the other side of the room,” Mr Harris recalled of the moment he was electrocuted.
“The room filled up with a horrendous amount of thick, black smoke, so the two lads I was with couldn’t enter and wouldn’t have been able to breathe in that.”
He said at the moment he made contact with the bar, he remembers the “highest temperature you can ever imagine running through my whole body”.
“I shouted for my friend Darren and that was it, I don’t remember anything… my heart stopped,” he said. “I was on the floor and didn’t move for around a minute and a half or something. And then I just woke up and ran for my life, probably getting on for a quarter of a mile.”
Mr Harris regained consciousness and said he remembers feeling “so sad for my life… I’m on fire”.
He said that with the adrenaline pumping through his body, he was able to move fast and was focused on getting to the main road for safety.
But he said the flames reignited while he was running to seek help.
“So then I was rolling around on the floor screaming for help and stuff – that was torture in itself.”
‘A medical miracle’
Miraculously, after reaching the main road, Mr Harris managed to flag down a passing ambulance with blue lights on and was rushed to Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham.
He then spent 27 days in a coma before waking up to the horror of what had happened.
A few weeks later, Mr Harris was diagnosed with a disease called folliculitis – which caused more hair loss.
He recalls “pieces of meat” dangling from his limbs and believes he is the first person in the country to have taken part in clinical trials called BTM (biodegradable temporising matrix) – a synthetic device used to facilitate wound healing.
Mr Harris said the only bit of normal skin he managed to keep across his entire body was “probably four or five inches on the back of my neck”.
Doctors have described Mr Harris’ case as a medical miracle and say he shouldn’t be alive.
He survived third-degree burns across 47% of his body, which left the bone exposed in both arms.
Mr Harris says the pain of the ordeal will be with him every day, “because what I was born with, my face, obviously what I used to look like, I no longer look like that”.
He’s still coming to terms with the loss of his face and his ability to work.
‘I want to be an inspiration’
Mr Harris said that what keeps him going is the fact he has been given a “second chance at life”.
He said he feels he has to do “something constructive” with his experience, “instead of sitting at home and not doing anything about it”.
His message to anyone struggling to make ends meet is that crime is not the answer because “you can get into trouble and get imprisoned for it”.
“I just want to tell people not even ever to consider it,” he said, adding that his problems have multiplied by thousands since the accident and he “wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy”.
“I want to be a bit of an inspiration… to others out there who are in a crisis.”
Mr Harris is trying to raise money for reconstructive surgery.