Aug 18, 2013
06:13 AM
The Connecticut Story

Dead Trees in Connecticut Parks Pose Hazard; Colchester Woman's Death Highlights Issues

Dead Trees in Connecticut Parks Pose Hazard; Colchester Woman's Death Highlights Issues

Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register

Stephanie Cabral, of West Haven, walks her dogs, Morgan and Misha, past a fallen tree with a hanging branch at Sleeping Giant State Park Friday.

A Colchester woman went with her family to the Salmon River State Forest in May to have a picnic while enjoying the natural beauty there, with picturesque views of the river and fragrant flowers.

Instead, a large oak tree fell, killing Barbara Young, 45, who died at the scene, and seriously injuring her daughter, Jessica Surratt, 18. Young’s son, Kevin Surratt, 22, escaped unharmed.

The tree had been alive, but it was infested with carpenter ants and was rotting on one side, according to a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) environmental conservation police report on the accident.

The incident calls into question how well the state is inspecting and maintaining the trees in the state’s parks, where thousands of visitors go annually to hike, swim and enjoy the scenery.

An investigation by the New Haven Register and its sister publications, The Middletown Press and the Register Citizen of Torrington, revealed there are many dead trees near trails in state parks in Connecticut, which pose a potential hazard to visitors. Multiple DEEP employees mentioned understaffing as being a factor in any delay in removing dead trees

In late July and early August, reporters visited several parks. In addition to the Salmon River State Forest in Colchester, we checked popular destinations like Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, Wadsworth Falls State Park in Middletown, Burr Pond State Park in Torrington, West Rock Ridge State Park in Hamden and New Haven, Indian Well State Park in Shelton and Osbornedale State Park in Derby. Dead trees were found near trails in all of those parks.

Other areas of the country have had tragedies similar to the one at Salmon River State Forest. On Aug. 4, a pregnant woman was killed when a tree fell on her as she sat on a bench at a park in Queens. In California in July, a 21-year-old woman was killed by a falling tree at a summer camp in Yosemite National Park. Janet Young of Putnam, cried as she spoke about what happened to her family members.

The accident didn't happen at the park's main entrance in Colchester, but at a roadside pull off typically used as a fishing area. The location is off Comstock Bridge Road, along the Salmon River, in Colchester. The family parked in a dirt parking lot, walked down the bank and sat on a ledge outcropping along the edge of the river. Shortly afterward, the family heard a loud cracking sound, Kevin Surratt told investigators, according to the state report. Brian Ross, a DEEP maintenance worker, said trees next to riverbanks like this one have a tendency to lean toward the water as they seek sunlight. It had a lean and some decay, and the tree broke and the whole crown came down, Ross said. When an investigator went to look at the oak tree after the accident, the fallen portion had green leaves, but the front portion of the stump which faced the river was rotten, the report shows.

The tree had been alive, about 60 feet tall, hollow, and infested with carpenter ants from stump to crown. Bark was missing on a portion of the tree facing the river. Where the bark was missing, the wood was heavily decayed, the report shows. There was no sign of root disturbance. Investigators wrote that the suspected cause for the tree failure was the crown leaning toward the river and the hollow trunk and heavy decay on the river side of the tree.

Due to concerns from the public, the department inspected and took down some additional trees at the main entrance to the park, where there are picnic tables, after the tragedy.

“The trees were taken down here at this main entrance because we wanted to make sure everything is safe,” Ross said. “Students were coming on buses, so we looked for the worst trees to take out. There are always people here, and you do look for hazards on a regular basis. We do try to keep things safe, but there is always a risk out here.”

While the tree from the May accident and trees near the picnic area at Salmon River State Forest have been removed, we recently walked on trails in the park and found dead trees still standing alongside the paths.

See the full story at New Haven Register online.


Dead Trees in Connecticut Parks Pose Hazard; Colchester Woman's Death Highlights Issues

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