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Posted on: Jun 21 2016

WILLIAM GLABERSON | MAY 14, 2012 | New York Times

An evidence photo of the tree that crushed Mr. Guevara's legs.

An evidence photo of the tree that crushed Mr. Guevara’s legs.

They said it sounded like thunder.

Or the creeeak, creeeak of floorboards in a Hollywood slasher movie.

It was the warning sound from a New York City tree before a calamity: a limb as heavy as a refrigerator — or the whole soaring tree itself — was breaking loose.

“We were walking and we heard a — we heard a cracking sound,” Shifra Berger, a 12th-grade teacher, testified at a Brooklyn trial in 2007 that found the city accountable for her mother’s death. “I said: ‘Oh my gosh Mom, the tree. We have to run.’ And we tried. We tried to run.”

Mrs. Berger’s was among at least 10 lawsuits in recent years that have raised questions about whether more diligent tree care by the city might have prevented the crack — or creak or boom — and the death or injury that it brought. Evidence gathered in those suits revealed a haphazard system of tree care, and several instances when lapses in communication or slow responses contributed to injuries or deaths. In most of the suits, the sound played an eerie starring role.

In interviews and testimony, New Yorkers who have heard it described the sound that delivered that taunting warning, too late for any escape. City officials call the episodes tragedies that are sometimes just unpredictable accidents or a result of weather or wind, and note the relatively small number considering that the city has 2.5 Million trees in its parks and on its streets. “Unfortunately, nature is unpredictable,” the city parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, said last week.

In eight seconds after the cracking sound, according to the testimony in Mrs. Berger’s case, her arm-in-arm stroll with her mother turned into a doomed fight for life, as limbs from a poorly tended tree crashed down on Avenue J in Midwood.

The sound is sure to have a featured role, too, in a lawsuit over a snapped limb in Central Park on Memorial Day 2010. “We heard like a crash,” one of the plaintiffs, Carmen Cardoso, said the other day.Her family had just put the pink blanket out beneath a 150-year-old shingle oak on a sunny hillside not far from the boathouse. There, she had her baby girl, Zayra, not quite 2; their little white dog Fluffy; and her mother, Roberta Colores-Martinez, 52, a slight woman who once did laundry for $5 a day.”When I heard that sound, I got really scared,” Ms. Cardoso remembered in the office of her lawyer, Guy I. Smiley. “The only thing I could do was throw myself on my daughter.”
Sunbathers came running. Some were calling 911. Some were snapping cellphone pictures of the family buried and bloodied by a branch.
The baby was fine. The dog was, too. But Ms. Colores-Martinez’s skull was fractured. Today she has a metal plate above her ear, headaches every day and some muddled thinking. “I heard like a thunder, and I don’t remember anything after that,” she said.
Downtown, at Stuyvesant Square Park, the sound was there again, back on a July evening in 2007. “It was this very loud crack, very loud sound, and I turned around to see what it was,” a 29-year-old social worker named Alexis Handwerker testified in a deposition.
She had just taken a seat on a park bench. It was a perfect, bright summer evening. Then it was “just leaves and it almost felt like it was dark out because there was so much on top of me and I knew that I could not move,” she said. Bones were broken from her face to her thigh. She needed six staples in her head. “It’s an ongoing loss,” Ms. Handwerker testified. “I look around and my friends are dating, and meeting people and socializing, and I had that.” In February, the city settled her case for $4 Million.

In the Bronx, Rodolfo Guevara, 23, a wheelchair athlete with a dimpled smile, was on a bike path in Pelham Bay Park when he heard something on an August morning in 2006.

“It was like a movie, a horror movie: Something comes from nowhere and this happens,” he said in his tidy Bronx apartment. He had been gliding along on a cycle built for disabled people, with hand pedals and three wheels. The big rotted tree smashed across the bike path, crushing his legs and pressing the bike chain into his skin.

For most people who hear that sound, there is no way to know what comes next. But Mr. Guevara had been a crime victim three years earlier, his spinal column damaged by a gunshot. He knew about nursing homes and rehab and hope.

“It was hard for him, but he’s strong,” his brother Jorge Guevara said. This summer, Rodolfo Guevara said, he plans to take the cycle back out on the city’s streets and bike paths. “I’m still here,” he said.

The mind can be a mystery; maybe sometimes the boom or the creak is a memory it does not want to keep.

Whatever the reason, Hyman Schermer, 65, who works in Manhattan real estate, does not remember any sound at all. He was on a sidewalk alongside Union Square Park in 2002, heading toward the farmers’ market.

The next thing he knew, his legs were shattered and an ambulance attendant was cutting his new backpack off. “My whole memory of the moment,” Mr. Schermer said, “is somehow just seeing some leaves floating in the air, being in some far away place.”

Months in a wheelchair, permanent aches and pains and a foot that will not work the way it is supposed to make the day the tree limb fell on him hard to forget, he said. But it might also be said that it is hard to remember.

Mr. Schermer took a walk with a reporter recently, a little slow and unsteady on his feet. Was it that tree? Or that one with a big scar? Or maybe it was that tree over there? Nothing sparked a memory beyond that gauzy image of floating leaves. But for a while, as he recovered, when he went to the farmers’ market, he said, “I’d get a little bit of a chill or something.”

But the sinister sound was back in its starring role in Brooklyn, at that 2007 trial over Shifra Berger’s last walk with her mother. A jury awarded the family $2.95 Million, later reduced to $1.6 Million by an appeals court.

Coy Montgomery was in a car stopped at a light on Avenue J that Tuesday afternoon in 2003. He heard something, he testified, and looked over at the sidewalk in time to see the two women, Mrs. Berger and her mother, Hinda Segal, who was 52.

The afternoon had suddenly turned rainy. The women walked under a Norway maple with branches hanging over a bus stop. Just when Mr. Montgomery looked, he saw a big branch come flying down at Mrs. Segal.

Mrs. Berger testified that for an instant her mother frantically tried to get branches and leaves out of her face. “I begged her to get up,” she testified.

Mrs. Berger ran for help. She banged on a nearby door. She called to her mother. “I was screaming that she shouldn’t leave us.”

She ran back to her mother. “We were holding hands,” she said. “We were both squeezing.”

Then someone was trying to help. “I got up to move away a little bit to give them space,” Mrs. Berger testified, “and that’s when I realized that there was blood running from her head into the rain toward the street.”

What was it, just before the tree sent down its deadly branches, that made Mr. Montgomery turn to see that fatal moment under the Norway maple?

“I heard a boom,” he told the jury.

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