Old tree falls, injuring girl in bed

March 16, 2005

BY DAVID WAITE AND PETER BOYLAN, Advertiser Staff Writers

Manoa neighbors call Norfolk pines a longtime danger

City-owned Norfolk Island pines that tower over Beckwith Street in Manoa have been a danger for years, neighbors said, and should have been removed before one crashed through a home, critically injuring a 12-year-old girl yesterday.

"They are beautiful trees but they are very dangerous in residential areas," said Jane Moulin, a music professor at the University of Hawai`i-Manoa. A tree fronting her house, at the corner of Beckwith Street and Mohala Way, snapped several years ago and damaged her car, which was parked on the street.

Julia Engle, a seventh-grader at Punahou Middle School, remained in critical condition last night at The Queen's Medical Center after surgery for injuries to her head and chest.

A nearly 100-foot Norfolk pine snapped at the base and crashed through the roof of the second-floor bedroom where she was sleeping early yesterday morning. The tree fell from a yard across the street from her home.

The tree fell through her bedroom at about 4:50 a.m., crushing her, police said.

"You hope for the best, but you have a whole bunch of fears," said Mark Pennington, the girl's uncle, outside the home yesterday.

Pennington said the injured girl's younger sister, Cristina, 10, who sleeps in an adjoining room, got up in the middle of the night to cuddle with her mother. Had she stayed in her room, Pennington said, she, too, might have been in harm's way.

Meanwhile, the city acknowledged yesterday that it owns the tree, and neighbors reported that a company contracted by the city trimmed it three months ago.

City officials, however, said they did not have details of the tree's maintenance record, and would not comment on whether the city knew if there were problems with the tree.

At an unrelated news conference yesterday, Mayor Mufi Hannemann said he is considering an inventory of "all city trees which are in harm's way and have a danger of being a public safety risk."

"We need to come up with some type of proactive plan that assures the public that, as much as we can, we are going to try to identify where these accidents are going to occur," he said.

Of the tree that fell yesterday, the mayor said it "is a city tree."

"I feel very badly and want to extend my sympathies to the family," Hannemann said.

Rick Fried, a Honolulu attorney who was retained by Julia Engle's parents, Debbie and Tom Engle, said a tree expert told him that the tree "appeared" to be diseased and termite-eaten.

"We're looking into the responsibility of the city and county and any potential subcontractor who may have been given responsibility of taking care of the tree on behalf of the city," he said.

Neighbors yesterday expressed concern about the maintenance of the trees, which loom tall on both sides of the narrow, two-lane blacktop street.

For 35 years, Ed Chun has lived across the street from the home that was struck by the tree.

He said workers for a company that is under contract by the city came three months ago to trim the tree. At the time, a worker told him the tree was in bad shape and needed to be removed, Chun said.

"The tree trimmer told me it was sick," he said, shaking his head. "They must not have money."

Moulin, who has lived in her house on Beckwith for 24 years, said several decayed trees have been removed over the years. She said crews trim the lower branches "every year or two," and "topped" several of the trees nearly a decade ago.

When crews top the upper portion of the trees, the trees sprout five or six new runners that circle the existing trunk and grow skyward, adding to the weight on the upper portion of the trees and creating surface area for gusty winds to catch, some residents said.

The trunk of the fallen tree was pockmarked with large, orange globs of sap that looked like little lava cones. The trunk also appeared to be damaged by termites or dry rot.

Residents whose homes face Beckwith Street said the Norfolk pines, which were planted nearly 100 years ago, are on city property or on city-owned easements across private lots in the scenic neighborhood.

"We can't trim the trees because this is a special design district," Moulin said.

Witnesses yesterday described the shock of a loud crash before dawn. A UH student who lives in the back portion of the multifamily structure that was hit said he was jolted awake by a large crash and thought an electrical transformer had exploded.

Laura Langsfeld, who lives across the street from the Engles, said she heard a loud noise followed immediately by people screaming.

"I thought there was a traffic accident," she said. "I'm just very concerned about this child."

At Punahou Middle School, supervisors, teachers and counselors attended the daily student meeting to help Julia's classmates deal with the news.

"I think that's certainly a high concern of the school's," said Laurel Bowers Husain, Punahou's director of development and communications.

Students of middle-school age respond in different ways to sad and shocking news, and Husain did not know how the students would express their concern for Julia. "I'm sure that it's happening in a lot of different ways," she said.

The school is focusing on helping Julia's friends and classmates while the family deals with more pressing matters, but it is ready to provide support for Julia's family, as well. "We'll be standing by to help in whatever way we can," Husain said.

Staff writers Treena Shapiro and James Gonser contributed to this report.

Tree experts say it's not easy to identify the risky ones. A10

The Norfolk Island pine that crashed into a house on Beckwith Street was about 100 feet tall and was one of several that were planted nearly a century ago. It crushed a 12-year-old girl while she slept.

A city crew removes debris from the Mänoa street where the 100-year-old tree fell yesterday. Other Norfolk Island pines, some not as old as the fallen one, are prominent in the neighborhood.

Trees particularly susceptible to termite damage:

Avocado, Christmasberry, ironwood, mango, Norfolk Island pine, royal poinciana, silk oak.

Problem signs to watch for in large trees:

Trees that have open wounds or large cavities.

Possible damage to roots, such as from nearby construction work (which can create an entry point for termites).

Top of the tree dying.

A burst of excessive new growth on branches.

Tip dieback or yellowish leaves compared to other trees of that species.

Call in the professionals

It is possible a severely compromised large tree will have no exterior signs of problems. Professional arborists have equipment and techniques for checking the trunk for termites or rot, and they are trained to identify potential weak spots.