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

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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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  • nora c

    It is a tree..It is nature. Really..you are reporting on this? These parents have suffered a horrible loss. But the fault of a forest preserve? Shame on CBS.

    • Roberta Waker

      If homeowners are responsible for trees on their property, the Forest Preserve and other organizations are certainly responsible for THEIR trees. If a tree is unsafe, it should be trimmed or removed. If a story brings unsafe conditions to the attention of the public so they can be more cautious, it’s a good story.

  • pessimist
  • realist

    How is DuPont and a story out of New York responsible for a tree in Chicagoland? I agree with the first comment-trees naturally die and fall down. It is called a forrest ‘preserve’, and preserves were not intended to ever be thinned of the trees that create the forrest. Next people will be complaining about the sand at a beach or the dirt on the ground.

  • T

    you know there has been alot of people who have died climbing those cliffs at yellow stone, I think the goverment needs to make the mountains less steep, and while they are at it, in our area Tornados come through and kill people every year, they need to maybe have those re-routed to an unpopulated area.

  • TreeHouse

    The Nanny State is alive and well. If we all stayed indoors our entire life, the chances would be reduced to almost zero of ever being killed by a tree. More from those that just want to control every aspect of your life. Fabian socialism.

  • waiting on death

    the tree in front of my house is rotten but it is still alive branches fall from it every day the wind blows I am scared that this tree is going to drop down on my roof. I call the city of Chicago no one has come out to look at it. I guess they are waiting for it to flall on someone……

    • CFLC

      waiting on death
      The City will never come out to remove the tree in front of your house, unless it falls and only on the public way. The City loves to plant trees but does nothing to maintain them. If you want the tree to be removed you will have to do it yourself, and that comes from my Aldermans mouth.

      • Roberta Waker

        Is this tree on City property or on the homeowner’s property? “In front of my house” doesn’t mean anything insofar as ownership of this tree. I would suggest he take your advice and check with HIS Alderman before removing it in case he needs a permit of some kind. If this tree is that unsafe, he definitely needs to DO SOMETHING.

  • Roberta Waker

    If this tree is on your property, YOU are responsible for any injuries or property damage caused by it, especially since you are aware that it is unsafe. Every homeowner should inspect his/her property to make sure it is safe because they are ultimately responsible. If it damages your roof, your homeowners insurance might not pay and it can cost you thousands of dollars to repair the damage. I would suggest you stop waiting and DO SOMETHING.

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