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2 Investigators: Could Deaths From Falling Trees Have Been Prevented?

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In Lake County, next to a golf course, a rotted tree fell on top of a woman walking her dog, causing crushing back and leg injuries. (CBS)

In Lake County, next to a golf course, a rotted tree fell on top of a woman walking her dog, causing crushing back and leg injuries. (CBS)

Dave Savini Dave Savini
Award-winning Chicago journalist Dave Savini serves as investigative...
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(CBS) -- A yearly camping trip turned tragic after a teenage boy was struck by a tree limb that crashed down on top of him. But he is not the only victim of rotted trees that fall.

CBS 2’s Dave Savini investigated the lack of proper tree inspections that is being blamed for causing deaths and injuries to people on roadways, walking paths and even at a golf course.

Sixteen-year-old Kyle Zuleg and his friend Tommy Harless were hit by a massive tree branch while playing flashlight tag in Will County’s Messenger Woods. Harless survived with numerous broken bones, but Zuleg was killed.

Jill Zuleg, Kyle’s mother, says the Will County Forest Preserve District failed to detect the damaged tree prior to her son’s death.

“It was a branch that extended out from the tree,” Zuleg says. “It had been cracked for over a year.”

For nearly a year after Zuleg’s death, the remaining tree was left standing, even though it reportedly had two more massive decaying stems.

“My son was killed and they didn’t do more,” Kyle’s father, Matt Zuleg, says.

A tree specialist hired by the county said the remaining tree appeared fine, but an expert hired by the Zulegs went to the top of the tree and reported a significant amount of structural weakness. The investigation resulted in the tree finally being cut down.

The Zulegs are not the only ones suffering the consequences of trees left to rot.

Last year, Jerzy Szczepanek was in traffic on Cumberland Avenue when a tree fell onto his van, killing him.

“It’s utterly preventable,” says attorney Tom Gorman, who represents the Szczepanek family.

Gorman says the Illinois Department of Transportation dropped the ball when the agency failed to fill a public safety job – that of a technician who was supposed to check trees near roads.

“That particular position hadn’t been filled for five years prior to this incident,” Gorman says. “Ironically, though, it was filled shortly after.”

In Lake County, next to a golf course, a rotted tree fell on top of a woman walking her dog, causing crushing back and leg injuries.

“It makes me pretty angry that it could have been avoided and I wouldn’t have to put up with pain every day,” says the woman, who asked not to be identified.

A year and half before her injuries, the tree next to  the one that struck her had collapsed because it was rotted, too.  The golf course had a tree inspection policy, but never told the employee it was part of his job, says attorney John Kornak.

“He didn’t know that he should inspect the trees and make sure they are not hazardous,” said Kornak. “Nobody ever told him to do it.”

Will county officials say since Kyle Zuleg’s death they have now quadrupled the number of inspections along trails and that in hindsight they’ve could have done better.

IDOT declined to comment because of pending litigation.

In many places, the bottom line is there is not enough being done to regularly inspect trees, especially with shrinking government budgets.

The Zulegs donated Kyle’s organs to five people. They are hoping to raise money to help raise awareness for organ donation. Click here for more information.

“I can’t change this horrible, horrible experience,” Jill Zuleg says. “All I can do is try to turn it into something good for other people.”

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