Contrary to public statements by Newport Beach city officials, the tree that fell Sept. 16 and killed Haeyoon Miller in her car was clearly diseased, as was at least one other tree in the same Irvine Avenue median strip, according to one of the state’s leading arborists.
At the request of the Independent, Greg Applegate, an expert in the field of tree hazard, reviewed video and photographs of the tree that fell and killed the 29-year-old Miller and of other trees around the city.
Applegate said the tree that killed Miller showed clear signs of decay, based on his review of the root system as seen in a video shot by a bystander as rescuers tried to free Miller from her car without success before she died.
Applegate told the Independent that the decay was “quite extensive” and that “the root plate that came up was much too small and looked decayed.”
He also noted, “The decay is something like an inverted cone extending only slightly up the trunk if at all. It is often started when large roots are cut and some people believe when trees are topped or pruned severely. The decay has to get pretty bad before much is seen above ground.”
Applegate also told the Independent that the lack of bark on the roots as they extended down into the ground was also a clear sign that decay of the tree’s root system was clearly evident and was well underway.
In addition, a photograph taken four days after Miller’s death and a day prior to the removal of more than 100 trees on Irvine Avenue by the city reveals that another eucalyptus tree, close by the tree that fell on Miller, was clearly diseased, according to Applegate.
The photograph, seen here for the first time, shows a fungus known as a sulphur conk or by it’s scientific name, Laetiporus sulfurous, growing out of a large eucalyptus tree on Irvine Avenue.
That fungus attacks the hardwood in the center of a tree. The presence of the external growth, said Applegate, “is a shot over the bow” and a “clear red flag” that the tree was in need of further inspection due to active decay issues.
Applegate’s analysis directly contradicts statements by City Manager Dave Kiff and city spokesperson Tara Finnigan in the wake of Miller’s death.
The evening of Miller’s death, Finnigan told the media that an initial analysis of the fatal tree’s trunk by the city arborist did not show any evidence of disease.
That arborist, according to the city, is Dan Sereno. He has been contacted by the Independent, but the city has refused to allow him or anybody else to speak on the record about the case. Mark Harmon, the city’s top person on tree safety issues also declined a request to be interviewed for this story. The city instead requested that written questions be submitted to Harmon.
Three days later, in announcing that more than 100 trees would be immediately removed from the Irvine Avenue median, Kiff said that a team of four arborists had inspected the fallen tree and others in the median and while a cause for the fall was still unknown, “the arborists called for the removal of the trees. They suggest that the eucalyptus ‘hedgerow’ that was initially planted many years ago could have been affected as individual trees aged, were removed or fell.”
Kiff made no mention of disease or rot, but instead characterized the removal as “prudent” given that one had already fallen.
The tree that killed Miller was not the first eucalyptus on Irvine Avenue to fall and strike vehicles on the street.
In January of 2010 another eucalyptus tree there toppled over during a rain storm crushing a car and damaging another. At least one victim was injured in that case. City Attorney Aaron Harp, responding to a question about that incident, told the Independent, “The City has not been sued or entered into a financial settlement or other mutual agreement” as a result of that incident.
The city has denied repeated requests from the Independent to view the stump of the fallen tree, which is being stored in a city yard, although officials also will not say which yard.
Harp has also refused Independent requests to release any reports or documents about the Miller incident, citing attorney-client privilege because of an anticipated claim and/or lawsuit by Miller’s family.