The tragic death of a six-month-old baby on Saturday just outside the Central Park Zoo was the result of a major limb of a honey locust tree which suddenly fell about thirty-five feet. The infant was being held by her mother when the falling branches struck both. The tree was said to be in full leaf, which made its branches even heavier than they might otherwise have been.
The sad news received enormous media attention, because of the death of an innocent infant and the celebrity of Central Park, a place of great public importance, both historic and scenic. Millions of people are familiar with the park, and when something happens there – good or bad – it is as if it had happened to them.
The park, which is owned by the City of New York, has been managed since 2000 by the Central Park Conservancy, a thirty-year-old non-profit that has raised on its own about $300 million to repair, support and maintain the 843-acre park. It is unprecedented in the universe of parks and recreation for a private charitable organization to contribute so much to a public park. The conservancy acts under the direction of the Commissioner of Parks & Recreation, a mayoral appointee.
"The accident occurred on a glorious, postcard-ready summer afternoon in New York, free of the usual culprits of lightning or snow. A large, healthy tree branch, 30 feet above a well-traveled path just outside the Central Park Zoo, snapped, fell and killed a 6-month-old girl as horrified visitors looked on.
"The accident, which occurred in one of the park's most popular locales, could be viewed as a freak occurrence. But it is also the latest in a string of deadly episodes that have plagued the park in the past year, all involving tree branches that abruptly plummeted to earth, killing or seriously injuring passers-by."
The News emphasized responsibility for the disaster. Across the top of p6, a banner read: 'Baby's Death Sparks Probe of Park's Arbor Upkeep'. The story was written by Ruby Cramer and Helen Kennedy. It was headed: WHO’S IN CHARGE OF KILLER TREE? Their lede:
"A BABY IS DEAD. A mother is hospitalized. And still no one can say who was responsible for maintaining a tree after one of its falling branches struck them at the Central Park Zoo."
The Post assigned three reporters to the story, Lachlan Cartwright, Sally Goldenberg and Leonard Greene. The article ran on p6, accompanied by a picture of the mother and child and a photograph of the tree. "THE FAMILY IS IN SHOCK", Grief Amid Tree-Snap Probe. The lede:
"Heartsick relatives of an infant knocked out of her mother's arms and killed by a tree branch at the Central Park Zoo comforted each other yesterday as city officials puzzled over the horrifying tragedy."
Steps can be taken to protect park visitors. More frequent inspections of trees could help. There should be a type of sonogram that you can use to tap a tree trunk to see you what is inside – solid mass, decay, or a large hole. If such a device does not now exist, it should be invented.
Recalling my experience as Parks Commissioner with regard to falling trees, the date of March 6, 1997 is seared into my memory. It was that morning that a large tree in Queens unexpectedly toppled on a car taking four girls to parochial school. The tree fell just as the girls passed under it, and all four were killed. Two of the four were sisters.
I went to the scene at once and was horrified. The huge tree was lying across the road, the car pinned beneath it. A few seconds earlier or later and the girls would have escaped injury. Mayor Giuliani came to the place of the accident, and then went to the hospital to console the bereaved parents and relatives of the girls.
Of course, nothing could alter the tragedy we had just seen, but the Mayor was at his best in situations like this, doing whatever he could to alleviate the suffering of the families. The girls are at peace, but the parents will suffer from this disaster for the rest of their lives.
Other instant tragedies are the result of lightning strikes, flash floods, automobile or aircraft accidents, hurricanes and tornadoes, and violent assaults and murders. Yet there is something so primitive and terrifying when an object falls from the sky and strikes someone dead.
It is a natural impulse to assign blame, and sometimes there is human culpability, but on many occasions, the old description of "acts of God" is applicable, although it is not clear why God would act in such an unjust and precipitous manner taking the lives of innocent individuals and wreaking havoc on their families. Believers accept the inexplicable, doubters do not.