The day was already strange enough. Through a most peculiar set of circumstances, and of the thousands of tree care companies they could have selected, a Swedish television producer asked West Michigan Tree Services if we would participate in an upcoming episode of Sweden’s version of “Most Dangerous Jobs.” They were in the states doing an American tour and had just filmed in Detroit. Our role was to assist their star, Ms. Carina Berg, to climb a large tree and do some aerial tree trimming. We were to closely monitor and coach her, guiding her through not only the aerial work, but also chipping the brush and hauling the wood.
Carina is a pro. Lean, athletic and highly intelligent, her English is better than mine.
She listened closely to everything our foreman, Brian Rathbun, instructed her to do. We had selected a large ash tree in a city park to work in, and the morning shoot was going well.
The weather was sunny and dry — but windy, with gusts as high as 45 to 50 knots, which almost postponed the shoot. The producer, however, preferred to carry on, saying the winds added an additional danger-edge. Carina was in no way deterred.
A local TV crew was also on scene. They asked if they could film the event as a special interest story. Between the two film crews, support staff and our tree crew, there were more than 12 people involved that day.
Here’s where the script changed and the acting became real-life.
The unforeseen happens
Brian had just finished showing Carina how to use her climbing gear and, with cameras rolling, had begun to ascend the tree. They hadn’t climbed more than 1 foot off the ground when there was a sudden gust of wind. We heard a loud crack, a heavy crash in the distance and then screams for help.
As fate would have it, a group of mothers and their kids, ages 3 and under, were walking in the park. The gust of wind caused a large lead in an old silver maple to fracture, rip from the trunk and crash atop one of the mothers and her infant.
For a split second, we all stood there frozen, too shocked to move. But as “tree guys,” we were the first to grasp what had happened and ran over to help. Carina, the Swedish crew, as well as the local TV people followed closely behind. When I reached the fallen limb, the other parents were shouting to us that a woman and her child were trapped somewhere underneath and likely injured.
I could barely make out the mother through the branches and yelled to crew member Dylan to run back to the trucks and grab a chain saw. Fortunately, Brian, had his hand saw strapped to his leg. He commenced to cut branches away to gain access to the mother who was clearly hurt. We couldn’t see the child yet.
Performing the rescue
I asked the other mothers to take a head count of the group to be sure nobody else was trapped. They did and said, “Everyone else is here.” With a few more cautious saw cuts, we found the baby lying beside the mother, whose arms were stretched out toward the child. The mother was conscious and asking, “Is she alright? Are my children OK?” pleading in a tone of voice I won’t soon forget. “I want to see my children,” she said several times.
It took four of us to lift the branches off the baby with a, “1, 2, 3 — LIFT!” As we did, one of the other mothers stepped in and pulled the infant free. The baby, miraculously, was awake, not crying and appeared to only have suffered bruises and scrapes. We then began to work on extricating the mother, who we dared not move. She was complaining that her back hurt.
Brian is a volunteer fireman and has first-responder training. He knelt down beside her, explaining in a calm, firm voice that both her children (one was not struck) were accounted for and appeared unhurt, telling her she shouldn’t move. With a first-aid kit from one of the trucks, Brian bandaged a cut on the back the mother’s head, talking to her, asking her name, keeping her calm and conscious. She asked again to see her children. The other mothers heard, and set both her children in her line of sight. It helped tremendously in keeping the mother still until the paramedics arrived and instructed otherwise.
Within 10 minutes of calling 911, the police, firetrucks and several EMS vehicles began to arrive on the scene. The paramedics quickly took over, wrapped a brace around her neck and carefully set her onto a backboard. Six EMS personnel lifted the mother onto a wheeled stretcher and placed her into an ambulance, taking mother and child, as well as two other mothers and a second child to the hospital. The two other mothers were so shaken up that they, too, were transported. One of them was pregnant.
During the entire incident, both the Swedish TV crew and the local TV crew not only aided in the rescue, they also continued to run their cameras, capturing much of the rescue on film. One rendition can be seen from the local Fox17.
We found out the next day that the pregnant mother taken to the hospital went into labor that night and delivered a healthy baby. As it turned out, she was full-term (late in fact) and was walking in the park to try to induce labor. The other mother and child were just shaken up, but fine. They were released that day.
Fortunately, the trapped child was released from the hospital the next morning, after being retained overnight.
There had been concern that the infant had a concussion, as she vomited after being extricated from under the tree.
Not so fortunate was the child’s mother. She suffered a fractured back and hip, with multiple cuts and scrapes. Serious injuries to be sure, but if the limb had fallen a second sooner, or had she been a second slower, they would almost certainly have been crushed by the heavier lower portions of the falling limb.
Training pays off
Tree care companies normally don’t train their personnel to be prepared to rescue children and/or adults in distress. We are trained to assist each other for those critical moments when one of us is injured. Be that as it may, on this day, that training paid off for more than the tree workers.
The point of this column is not to tell a dramatic rescue story, or to laud the efforts of Brian and the tree crew, though I think that’s deserved. The point is to emphasize the importance of the safety training we receive in our trade. The staff was prepared to respond to an emergency. They knew to stay calm and focused. First-aid supplies were close at hand.
As Sgt. Dave Silver of the Grand Rapids Police said, “Fate, good luck, whatever you want to call it. Luckily they (mother and child) were out of the main path there.” Brody Carter, the Fox News reporter filming that day who witnessed the entire rescue, said about the extraordinary events, which most definitely made the evening news, “It was serendipitous that the tree crew happened to be on-site.”