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Silent Killers: The True Story Of Deadly Trees
	 -- by Gene Weingarten Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 7,1998; Page C01

America was stunned this week by the tragic deaths of Michael Kennedy and
Sonny Bono, who lost their lives to a silent killer. Trees.

That the public was surprised is evidence only of our ignorance and
gullibility. Americans are tree huggers. We love our trees. We loved
asbestos, once.

Years ago, Ronald Reagan tried to warn us about trees, and he was
ridiculed for his honesty. Trees kill. Their bite is worse than their
bark.

John Sevier of Atascadero, Calif., is an accident reconstruction expert.
He investigates killer trees, or as he puts it, "deadly tree scenarios."
It is his full-time business, and he makes a pretty penny at it. "You
think of the tree as your friend," he says, "not as something that will
kill you or put you in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. But it can.
And it does.

"Ask the lumbering industry. A lumberjack is about as likely to get life
insurance as a bomb squad demolition officer. The language of lumberjacks
is peppered with peril. A "butt jump" is the official term for what
happens when the hinge of a partially severed tree snaps as the tree
begins to fall. It is not uncommon. The trunk of the tree hops off the
stump, like a pogo stick from Hell. It plops down on its severed end,
which is angled back toward the man with the saw. The tree shudders,
reverses its course. Have you ever tried to outrace an 80-foot screaming
mahogany monolith with branches the wing span of a 747? If you had, you
wouldn't be reading this.

Do you know the official term, contained in Occupational Safety and Health
Administration regulations, to describe a dead limb lodged, insidious, in
the high branches of a tree, waiting to fall?
A "widowmaker."

Here is another tree term: "looping root." Looping root describes a
condition in which a tree root snakes its way up to the surface, then goes
back down into the ground, leaving a loop on the ground the size of a
human foot. "It's a trap," Sevier says. He investigated one case in which 
a woman was tripped by a looping root and suffered extensive hip damage.

Sevier tells of the case of the San Diego Zoo's Killer Eucalyptus, which
collapsed and killed a girl. Eucalyptuses are particularly dangerous
because they outgrow their own strength and suddenly crack and fall. "They
prune themselves, which is great in the Australian outback, but not in the
entrance to a zoo," Sevier says.

He has investigated trees that grew too quickly and blocked a stop sign.
"In spring it is no problem," he said. "By midsummer, the stop sign is
obscured and all of a sudden you have dead people all over the highway."

Item: June 5, 1997: A cottonwood in Albuquerque, N.M., dies when hit by a
Ford pickup. Its passing is not mourned. In the previous 40 years, the
Killer Tree of North Fourth Street, which presided over a hairpin turn,
was responsible for the deaths of 23 people.

Item: Oct. 24, 1989: A federal study of hunting accidents in Georgia found
that 36 percent of the hunters injured over the past decade were not shot
by other hunters. They fell out of trees.

Item: Jan. 4, 1996: An Arlington man was seriously injured in McLean when
a large oak tree fell on his car, rebounded and apparently struck the
vehicle two more times.

Item: July 21, 1993, Punxsutawney, Pa.: Lying pinned under a tree, a
woodsman with a broken leg cried for help for an hour before giving up
hope. Then he saved himself the only way he could: by cutting off his leg
with a pocket knife.

Trees' crimes against humanity are as old as humanity. Older, in fact.
Three hundred seventy-five million years ago they caused the extinction of
half the life on Earth. According to scientists at the University of
Cincinnati, as trees began spreading over dry, upland areas, their root
systems broke up the rocks. This caused an overdose of nutrients to be
washed into rivers and oceans, fertilizing the waters, leading to an
explosive growth of algae. At least 70 percent of all marine animal
species on Earth were suffocated and eradicated.

And now, 375 million years later, Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono.

Coincidence?

This just in: On Tuesday, in the Solomon Islands, near New Zealand, a
woman was killed while collecting fronds and branches to help secure her
home against Cyclone Susan. Cyclone Susan was blamed. But the fact is, the
woman was not killed because her house collapsed on her.

She did not drown.

She was not electrocuted by a downed power line.

She was beaned by a flying coconut. No one ever blames the tree.
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