Their only warning was a crackling in the darkness.
It was nearly midnight on Jan. 24. A group of teenagers were walking home from Sandy Beach when a rotten tree fell across the road, exploding into chunks on impact, injuring three of the youth.
Two of the injured youth were taken to Lions Gate Hospital in stable condition that night while the third was treated the next morning for a broken foot. The youths’ ages range from 15 to 18. Two of the teenagers are islanders, a third is from West Vancouver.
“As a parent you teach them all about, don’t do drugs, limit your alcohol, have a condom, watch the sex, but who is training your kid around be careful of dead trees that may fall on you,” asked Islander Dr. Yvonne McSkimming, whose son was injured in the incident.
The tree was on the slope between Mt. Gardner Road and Grafton Road, about a hundred metres away from Bowen Island Community School.
Photos of the scene show the injured youth lying and sitting amid chunks of wood that look to be more than a metre long, with hundreds of smaller pieces splintered across the asphalt. The tree itself was uprooted and the root ends appear to have ripped or snapped and the bottom portion of the tree is devoid of branches.
Six teenagers of the group returning from the beach escaped the ordeal unharmed and called 911. Police, fire and ambulance all attended the scene.
The weather site darksky.net shows that around midnight Jan. 24, the wind speed was below four kilometres per hour and the youth said that it was a calm night.
Like a loud gunshot
“[My son] described it as, ‘I heard what was like a loud gunshot or explosion and then we could hear the crackling. I yelled everybody…run,’” said McSkimming. “And so they all started to bolt but not really knowing where the tree was coming from.”
“Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a glimpse coming. I leaned forward so I wouldn’t get hit in the head,” McSkimming’s son told her.
That lean might have saved the youth’s life.
“The doctor was really clear at the hospital, he said, ‘You know a millimeter in any direction and you would have been making funeral plans,’” said McSkimming.
Either as it was coming down or when pieces ricocheted up, part of the tree hit McSkimming’s son on the shoulder and another piece scraped under his eye. A week after the incident, when McSkimming was speaking with the Undercurrent, she said her son still looked like he was in rough shape. But she’s just grateful he’s alive.
West Vancouver’s Mirek Pyk’s son was visiting his island friends that night and sustained a concussion and a broken arm from the tree.
“He heard some cracks and they start running,” said Pyk. “He doesn’t remember anything else and he woke up in the ambulance.”
“The boys said when they saw him he was lying down with bark all over his body and he wasn’t moving,” said Pyk. His son spent the night in hospital and though soon released, the teenager has some way to go in his recovery.
“He’s dizzy and not feeling well and I don’t know if he can start studying anytime soon,” said Pyk. “This worries me because he’s going to be behind in school.”
“I just have to say, they’re lucky they’re alive, considering size and weight of that tree and the way it was situated on the slope.” Pyk noted. “If the same impact hit younger children it could have been fatal.”
“We have to do something,” said Pyk. “Three people got hurt - we cannot just sweep this story under the rug.”
He said that he wants to see tree maintenance measures in place for those responsible for safety around the school.
McSkimming has a similar thought.
“It’s scary as a parent,” said McSkimming. “You live on an island, you take some gambles when you live on an island, totally appreciate that. But to be in a situation where the dead trees are not being taken care of properly, where this this could have been completely avoidable is what is my challenge.”
McSkimming is also concerned about her son, who is in grade 12, missing out on his final year of school.
“He can’t play rugby and this is his last year,” she said. “So there’s some loss in this bit of an accident.”
“I’m certainly going to be knocking on the door [of whoever owns the land] to say, this is not okay, and we’re talking about something or yes, we’re going to pursue this further, because you can’t put the community at that kind of risk.”
It is unclear who owns the land the tree was on but it was at least near the edge of Lot 1 of the municipality’s Community Lands.
On the other hand, a parent of one of the unharmed youth, who asked to not be named, said that she is just grateful that everyone survived.
“They should’ve been buying lottery tickets,” she said. “They’re the luckiest kids in the whole world as far as I’m concerned.”
“Bowen is still one of the safest places on Earth,” she said. “Though this is unfortunate, I would hate for as to not have as many trees.”
She said that the teenagers’ high school has arranged for some trauma counselling for all the youth involved.
Are trees safe?
The municipality declined to comment about tree maintenance in the area as the manager of public works is out of the country but did say that it is investigating the incident.
Marc Deschenes, a tree cutter of two decades of experience, said that the island has quite a few dead and rotting trees.
“Accidents could happen –if not addressed they could fall at some point,” he said. “You’re playing Russian Roulette with these dead standings.”
Deschenes urges people not to walk in the woods when the winds pick up.
When it comes to liability, however, Deschenes is clear – if no one is informed about a problem tree, the incident is deemed an act of God.