Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
A towering ponderosa pine weakened by two lightning strikes in five years at Bandelier National Monument claimed the life of an 81-year-old grandmother visiting New Mexico in 2016 with her family for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta when she went is knocked down in a gust of wind and fell on her.
The 70-foot-tall tree landed in a visitor parking lot at the popular landmark near Los Alamos five years ago, just as the Chicago woman and her two adult children got into their rental car after a hike and were watching a movie about the park.
Beverly Modlin suffered head, spine and other injuries after the tree collapsed, partially collapsing in the rental car and cutting off her adult son Robert Modlin, who suffered injuries. minor injuries. Her daughter, Susan Hines, was already in the back seat of the car when she heard a “crackle, boom” and the tree fell, according to park service investigators. Hines was not injured.
A wrongful death lawsuit filed in 2019 argued the crash was not an ‘act of God,’ alleging that park officials had given ample warning that the tree posed a danger to the public but took no action. measure to remove it.
Beverly Modlin’s family settled the case earlier this year for $ 1 million.
“I hope this has been a wake-up call for the United States Parks Service to take more care in protecting visitors to our national parks,” said Albuquerque attorney Jacob Vigil, who represented the Modlin family.
A spokeswoman for the parks service said in a statement that “we continue to be saddened by the tragic accident which killed one of our visitors.”
She added that since that time, the Bandelier Parks Department has reviewed and revised its monitoring protocols for dangerous trees and is doing everything to identify and eliminate those that present an imminent danger to parking lots, sidewalks or other places where visitors are likely to congregate. . “
The family had traveled to New Mexico for the Balloon Fiesta in October 2016 “to check their to-do list,” Vigil told the Journal. A visit to Bandelier was also on their itinerary. With its ancient cave dwellings, Bandelier has attracted up to 200,000 visitors per year.
“They found themselves with their mother killed in front of them and returned to Chicago alone, without her. “
Two weeks earlier, park workers had realized that the tree, the tallest in that area of the forest, had been struck by lightning for the second time in five years, according to a park service investigation.
“They got a lot of warnings,” Vigil said. “They knew the tree was fragile and could harm visitors at any time. It was a time bomb. “
The tree was adjacent to the path to the park’s amphitheater where an opera house that attracts hundreds of visitors was scheduled for September 2016.
According to a park service investigation report:
A severe storm hit the park on September 16, 2016, blowing an electrical transformer.
A week later, a Bandelier ranger discovered that the 70-foot ponderosa pine had been struck by lightning and sent a photo of the tree and a written report to his supervisor saying he believed the lightning from the tree was responsible for the power failure.
At least six other Bandelier employees and then superintendent Jason Lott also observed the tree in person and / or knew it had been struck. Employee notices broken logs or tree pieces on trail for disabled visitors
“We’ll have to deal with it eventually, so you know he’s probably going to die and become a hazard to the parking lot and trail,” one employee said, reporting a “big crack” in the tree to his supervisor, the survey showed.
Although denying any negligence on the part of its employees, park officials acknowledged in the responses to the lawsuit that none of its employees had formal training in how to identify dangerous trees and that they did not. there was no document showing that there had been a thorough inspection of the hazards. posed by the tree before it fell. There was no dangerous tree trainer in the park and no training program to identify dangerous trees.
It was an unwritten practice by Bandelier employees to notify the Wildland Fire Division, which is under the management of the monument, to ask the forest fire sawyers to assess dangerous trees for removal.
But the lawsuit alleges that Bandelier never notified this agency to assess the tree struck by lightning.
Earlier that year, a fire crew assessed and “mitigated” around 12 trees in the park’s Juniper Campground, but focused on standing dead trees that lean over high traffic areas such as as trails or picnic areas.
The damaged 70-foot tree, adjacent to the parking lot and measuring up to 23 inches in diameter, had a full, healthy crown with dense green foliage and did not appear to be leaning, park workers told investigators after the death of Modlin.
“We have a lot of tree edge lightning strikes,” park warden Geoff Goins said. “So many trees that are struck by lightning here, I didn’t think of it as a big deal.”
The park service wasted no time cutting down and disposing of the fallen tree the day after Modlin died, the lawsuit said, but generated a report that, based on the growth of the calluses, the tree had an exterior wound from top to base that was over five years old, which appeared to have been caused by a previous lightning strike. There were two other injuries, one of which was new and deemed “important” from the second lightning strike.
According to Bandelier’s “Hazard Tree Management” standard operating procedures, “As even healthy trees can fall in extreme weather conditions, the park will attempt to issue warnings to visitors when it deems appropriate.” The program is designed to protect the public and protect the agency from potential liability.
But there are a variety of dangers “inherent in the natural environment, which include dangerous trees.” Visitors and park staff should be aware of these inherent dangers and hold the National Park Service harmless as “acts of God.”
On the day the Modlin family visited Bandelier, wind gusts of up to 36 miles per hour were recorded. There has been no warning to the public of the 70-foot tree, which fell about 28 feet west of the Atomic City bus stop and Frey Trailhead, according to the lawsuit and reports from investigation.
A park service investigator quoted Robert Modlin, an engineer, as saying his mother was next to the rental car when they heard the falling tree creak.
“The most surprising thing for me was how quickly, all of a sudden, it got a lot of wind,” said Modlin, who was standing behind the vehicle.
Several passers-by helped him get his mother out from under the branches of the tree so that he could give mouth-to-mouth mouth watering.
“I couldn’t hear a breath and its color immediately faded,” he said.
Robert Modlen remembers feeling no emotion when emergency crews arrived and tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate his mother.
“There were no tears then, it only touched me when I was in the ambulance and I couldn’t stop crying.” He added: “She and I were very close, she was in such good shape for 81.”
He later thought about what he could have done differently when the tree started to fall.
“I wondered why I hadn’t pushed her aside, pushed her, did something,” he later told investigators. But Robert Modlin said he later had a dream that helped him “get over” his inability to save her.
It happened too fast for him to act, he told investigators. “And if I had gone to her, I too would have been run over by that tree.”