POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 14, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 1:36 a.m. HST, May 14, 2012
NEW YORK >> The sharp and sudden crack! broke the summer calm.
Alexis Handwerker had been sitting on a bench beneath a towering elm in Stuyvesant Square Park in Manhattan — now she was pinned to the ground, bleeding, disoriented and smothered by leaves. One arm was rammed back unnaturally, broken. Panicked parkgoers struggled to free her from a huge tree limb that had plummeted 30 feet.
“I don’t want to die,” she screamed. “I don’t want to die.”
Handwerker, a 29-year-old social worker, survived the July 2007 accident with grievous injuries, and sued. Her lawyers pieced together evidence that untrained parks workers had missed signs that the elm was rotting — even though the 80-foot tree, one of the biggest in New York City, had sent limbs crashing down before. The city settled in February, paying $4 million.
Handwerker’s suit is just one of at least 10 stemming from deaths or injuries caused by falling limbs and branches in New York City that were quietly resolved over the last 10 years, or are now winding their way through the courts. The city has paid millions of dollars in damages claims, with far more expected.
It all comes at a time of steep cutbacks in the amount of money the city dedicates to tree care and safety. Lawyers and investigators hired by the victims have gathered parks records, taken sworn testimony from city officials and parks workers, and hired tree-care experts to review city procedures. The collected evidence, taken together with public records and interviews with outside experts and parks officials, depicts an overstretched and haphazard system of tree inspections and care, one in which the crucial job of spotting dangers can be left to untrained workers, and repairs and pruning are delayed to save money.
At the center of many of the cases is a simple question: How much responsibility does the city have for protecting people who pass beneath its graceful elms, oaks and maples? Lawyers for the injured and dead have argued for more, while lawyers for the city have argued for less; in at least two recent cases, the city’s position has been rejected by appeals courts.
City lawyers have aggressively fought several of the cases, denying blame in what they called tragic accidents. They argued that the city was not required to regularly conduct state-of-the-art inspections to determine whether trees were rotting or disease-ridden.
New York effectively has two tree-care systems, one for Central Park, with its mix of private and public financing, and one for the rest of the city. But the suits demonstrated safety problems in each:
— In two of the most high-profile Central Park cases — the life-altering injury of a young Google engineer in 2009 and the death of a restaurant worker seven months later — workers noted signs of dangers in trees but did not move fast enough. In the case of the engineer, a park official thought he had been told that workers “got” the dangerous limb before it hurt anyone; in fact, they simply “got” an email warning of the danger.
— Workers did not detect that the huge tree that hit Handwerker had rotted to the point that its giant trunk was “gooey.”
— The parks department’s monitoring of trees in high-hazard areas like public squares, playgrounds and picnic areas has not caught up with an increasingly sophisticated science of managing the well-recognized risks of aging trees.
Tree-care experts say the testimony and records raise broad safety questions nationally. Preventive care of urban trees has been a budget casualty from Philadelphia to Chicago to San Jose, Calif. “It’s a problem here and everywhere,” said Douglas Still, the chief city forester in Providence, R.I. “Pruning programs are being cut, not increased.”
Some tree-care experts fear cuts will bring more accidents — and damage payouts. “It’s an old adage — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Randall Swanson, a forestry professor at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York. “Preventative measures can go a long way toward reducing the possibility of tree-related injuries.”
A STRETCHED SYSTEM
There are roughly 2.5 million trees in the city’s parks and on its streets. Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, noted that his department administered care to more than 70,000 of those trees a year with procedures that he said “prioritize public safety” while preserving and expanding the urban forest. “Unfortunately,” he said, “nature is unpredictable and limbs can fall even from healthy and well-pruned trees.
“The only absolute correction,” Benepe continued, “would be to have no trees at all, which would mean a city with much dirtier air, hotter temperatures, polluted water, and desertlike streets and public places — in short a city that would be neither healthful nor livable.”
No one argues that trees in remote park areas need to be inspected regularly. But tree-care experts say that a science has evolved in recent years in the “risk management” of trees in high-traffic urban areas like walkways. It includes formulas, checklists and rating scores that measure factors like the potential for injuries or deaths from disease or structural weakness and that calculate the numbers of people who are typically in the “target” area — like under the canopy of a big tree.
New York has not kept up. Parks employees are required to inspect trees in as many as 25 busy parks every two weeks, and the inspections are hardly thorough. Workers without special training look for dead limbs and other obvious risks as part of a 16-point inspection program that also requires them to evaluate play equipment, benches and fences; make sure animal waste and condoms are discarded; and check lawns and ornamental plantings. The parks department’s forestry division often sends trained arborists only after problems have been noted by the untrained employees.
Trees on city streets get pruning about every 15 years instead of every seven years, which was the practice only a few years ago, said the department’s deputy commissioner, Liam Kavanagh. The budget to trim them has dropped to $1.45 million from $4.7 million in the last five years.
Sosimo J. Fabian, of the city corporation counsel’s office, captured the city’s approach in the case of a Brooklyn grandmother killed by a falling limb in 2003. “It is an unfortunate event, but the city of New York did not cause it,” he told the jury.
The struggle will only get more challenging: New York City is more than halfway to its goal of planting a million more trees.
The total number of tree injuries is relatively small — in the five years ending in 2011, 51 people were injured, including two who were killed, on New York City streets and in parks. But evidence strongly suggests that the most devastating accidents could have been avoided.
In the death of the Brooklyn grandmother, Hinda Segal, jurors were told that city crews had been to the site eight times to remove a maple described as “half dead.” But in what Alan M. Greenberg, the lawyer for Segal’s family, labeled “incompetence all the way through,” the city left another maple whose limbs hung over a bus stop. The tree suffered signs of rot, fungus, carpenter-ant infestation and decay, the jury was told. A cascade of the heavy branches struck and killed the woman.
The city was ordered to pay $1.6 million, including $350,000 assessed by the jury for the eight seconds of panicked anguish Segal suffered between the audible crack and the instant she slipped into unconsciousness. The appeals court said that “rational jurors could conclude that the defendant City of New York was negligent in failing to discover the defective condition of the tree involved in the accident, and to take reasonable steps to prevent harm.”
MISSED WARNING SIGNS
On a clear summer day in 2007, Sohaib Qureshi, soon to start his senior year at Life Sciences High School, went to Riverside Park in Manhattan to play catch with his younger brother. He was an athletic 17-year-old with dreams of a college basketball scholarship.
Sohaib was reaching for the ball under the 24-foot limb of an oak when the crack came. He finally returned home months later in a wheelchair, with brain damage, hearing and vision loss, seizures and memory problems. The family has filed suit. His father, Waseem Qureshi, recently described how, when Sohaib meets someone new, he will introduce himself again and again because he forgets that he has just met his visitor.
The scene of the accident was Riverside Park’s Crabapple Grove. Overhead, the suit says, was a rotting limb that city parks workers had failed to spot. “There is no future for him anymore,” Sohaib’s father said.Alexis Handwerker, the director of a drop-in center for teenagers, took her beagle to the dog run in Stuyvesant Square Park on July 16, 2007. The sun was still up as it got close to 8 p.m. She gave the dog a treat and then took a seat on one of the benches under a 137-year-old elm.
Tree-care experts hired by her lawyers said the tree showed clear signs of structural weakness, a type of growth sprouts on its limbs that can be a sign a tree is in distress, and wounds from pruning, not to mention a history of falling limbs.
The limb that hit Handwerker was hollow from decay. The experts said that could have been detected by a parks worker with minimum training tapping it with an $8 mallet.
One of the parks workers testified that when the tree was taken down soon after the accident, she put her hand in the huge trunk and “it was all gooey.”
Parks workers questioned by Handwerker’s lawyer, Sal Spano, said that they did not know how to assess a sick tree: They mostly just looked for hanging branches. “It is a visual look from the ground,” testified one of them, Steven DiGiovanni. He said that he had no training at all in identification of tree disease and decay.
Lawyers for the city sought to have Handwerker’s suit dismissed. They failed. On Feb. 15, they settled for $4 million.
In Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, in 2006, a rotting tree covered in fungus that may have been dead for 10 years smashed across a bike path and pinned a cyclist. The cyclist, Rodolfo Guevara, sued. His lawyer, Richard T. Sules, questioned a parks supervisor, Bill Sackel, in 2009. The supervisor described a lackadaisical system of checking trees, even those right next to a bike path.
“We are a complaint-generated organization,” he testified. “So we only inspect any complaints that come in.”
Experts agree that the tree monitoring and care within Central Park are more thorough: The Central Park Conservancy’s more than $40 million budget provides for regular inspections by trained arborists.
But in the highly publicized cases of the Google engineer and the restaurant worker, the expertise made no difference, because recommendations to take action were not acted on quickly enough. Suits have been filed in those cases, as well as in at least two others, including the death of an infant in her mother’s arms near the Central Park Zoo in 2010.
The conservancy declined to discuss those cases in detail. But in a statement, its president, Doug Blonsky, said tree crews inspect and prune Central Park’s 21,500 trees regularly and noted that the park has 38 million visitors a year. He echoed the parks department’s defense that the only way to assure safety would be to remove all the trees. “We take every precaution to manage this unique public space proactively and responsibly,” Blonsky said.
The Google engineer, Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, a fresh-faced father of two in hipster horn-rim glasses, has a computer-science Ph.D. from Columbia. On July 29, 2009, he went for a walk near 63rd Street, and a fungus-laden branch from an oak tree fell 37 feet. Blair-Goldensohn, then 33, suffered traumatic brain injuries, paralysis and damage to his lungs and spinal cord, according to his family’s suit.
Should the city settle, or a jury find for Blair-Goldensohn, the cold calculus of damage awards suggests that the amount paid to a young, well-educated high earner would probably dwarf other tree-related payouts.
Neither Blair-Goldensohn’s family nor lawyers would be interviewed, but testimony and evidence in their suit describes miscommunications and missed opportunities.
On July 9, 2009 — 20 days before Blair-Goldensohn’s walk — a Central Park Conservancy official and trained arborist named Bill Berliner spotted a dead 15-foot limb on an oak that hung over the path at the park’s 63rd Street entrance. He wrote a report.
Berliner sent a follow-up email about the oak the next morning. “IA,” it said: immediate attention. One of the park’s top officials, Neil Calvanese, asked Russell Fredericks, the official who oversaw the park’s tree crew, “Did the tree crew get this?”
“Yes, the tree crew got it,” was the answer. Calvanese, now the conservancy’s vice president for operations, testified that he thought Fredericks meant that the crew “got” the branch. He learned later Fredericks simply meant the tree crew got the email.
Josh Galiley, the tree crew supervisor who received the email, testified that the crew was handling “several emergencies” and planned to get to the oak as soon as possible. Fredericks said the workers were busy with another task: they were making preparations to get the trees on the park’s edge ready for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, four months later.
Weeks passed. On July 29, the branch was still there, 37 feet up, when Blair-Goldensohn went for his walk.
A FATAL DELAY
Elmaz Qyra was a 46-year-old recent U.S. citizen who had brought his family from Albania to Brooklyn in 1998. He worked as a busboy at the New York Athletic Club on Central Park South.
Qyra’s wife, Naxhije, said through tears recently that, for some reason, they had not spoken on Feb. 25, 2010. Their teenage children were at school. She was at work as a dental assistant. So she can only guess that, after work on that snowy day, he went for a walk in the park because he felt peaceful there.
The bit of country in the city reminded him, she said, of his parents’ modest farm. “He loved the trees, he loved the flowers, he loved everything about the park,” she said.
A little after 3 p.m., Qyra’s walk took him beneath the Ghost Elm, so called for the eerie way it seemed to be bathed in light no matter the weather. He was on Literary Walk, a colonnade where visitors linger by the thousands in summer.
Qyra had no idea, but the Ghost Elm’s days were already numbered. It was on a list to be removed.
On Aug. 5 — just seven days after Blair-Goldensohn’s accident — a limb crashed down from the Ghost Elm and smashed a smaller tree to smithereens.
Arborists knew that the shedding of the big limb signaled the end of the Ghost Elm. The trunk was swollen from what turned out to be a five-foot cavity. The Ghost Elm also had fungus that can be a sign of festering disease. The tree was “a potential safety problem,” Calvanese testified.
Calvanese said parks officials had a “heightened awareness” of tree dangers after Blair-Goldensohn’s accident. He knew immediately that the Ghost Elm had to be removed. But it did not happen. Workers trimmed the Ghost Elm’s canopy but otherwise left it in place.
Under questioning by Alan M. Shapey, Naxhije Qyra’s lawyer, Galiley, the Central Park tree crew chief, said the tree was not taken down right away partly to save money. A one-tree job “would cost several thousand dollars,” he said, while a contractor could be hired for as little as $800 a tree if several could be removed at the same time. So they waited.
Summer turned into fall. In December, more than four months after its limb had crushed a tree on Literary Walk, someone put it on a removal list for an outside contractor to bid for the job.
On Feb. 25, the Ghost Elm was still there.
Elmaz Qyra, who loved the park in his adopted city, finished the lunch shift. He went into the park. He stepped onto the famous walkway.
If there was a crack, it is impossible to know if he heard it. He was found on Literary Walk with his head split open by a 15-foot limb from the Ghost Elm.