A couple weeks ago I had a very close call rigging out the last top on an ugly Silver Maple at the cemetery. My rigging point failed and a 25 ft chunk of log went freefalling towards the earth. Nobody was hurt – thank God. One stone got hit but it didn’t do any damage. As fate would have it, my apprentice wasn’t there that day to see and learn from what happened. After talking it over with Dr. Jack Daniels and thanking the heavens, I believe it ultimately comes down to complacency and normalcy bias: the top was just too big, and I knew it.
I want to provide some context before you watch the video.
We recently got this contract for taking care of the trees at one of the largest cemeteries in the city. This place is amazing: crypts, mausoleums, 25 ft tall stones, a massive herd of deer that you see every time you go in there. But, like most cemeteries around here, they have some trees that have been left too long and have now become hazardous.
The tree in question was an 80 ft Silver maple, long past its prime. The tree had 5 main leaders, 2 of which were stone dead, 2 seemed relatively ok, and the 3rd seemed halfass – it had quite a bit of life up top. The 2 good leaders were on opposite sides of the tree, everything in the centre was dead. This tree was total sketchbag, I refused to climb it. We have access to a 60ft spider lift sometimes on the weekends, which seemed perfect for the cemetery work, drive it right in, between the stones, set up right beside the tree.
So, we got set up and I went up to set my pulleys and take stock of the situation. Right away I had a bad feeling about it, from the moment I realized that I couldn’t reach the crotch on the tallest top. I was about 6 ft below it, which meant that the last cut would be a good size top, which goes against two of my golden rules:
1. “Go big or go home” vs “Go small AND go home”.
2. Always trust that little voice in the back of your mind
But I got set up anyway and started piecing it down, rigging almost everything. I figured that we would end up moving the spiderlift to the other side of the tree to finish, and so maybe I would be able to reach higher on that top from there. Everything went smooth, I was splitting the load between that tallest leader and the halfass leader – the one with the live top. This leader had woodpecker holes and peeling bark but it didn’t seem that bad, relatively speaking. I ended up taking the top off of it but leaving the spar for my pulley. To finish, I moved the lift around to the other side of the tree, hoping that I would be able to reach a little higher on that tallest top, but I realized that I had no better reach from this side. So there I was, the last top waiting to be cut, the load split between that spar and the other one.
From Wikipedia: “Normalcy bias causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster and its possible effects, because it causes people to have a bias to believe that things will always function the way things normally function. This may result in situations where people fail to adequately prepare.” That pretty much sums it up. I knew the top was bigger than what I would normally take, but that’s all I could reach with the lift. Keep in mind, this is the last top on a Friday, they needed it done yesterday, and I had already spent over $1000 on this lift (we used the lift for more trees than just this one). So, rather than packing it in and telling the crew that we would have to figure out some other option for finishing this, I said “screw it, I’m just gonna hope for the best”… Not my best decision. Boy am I ever glad I got it on video.
You can see how shaken up I was in the video. I could barely put my saw back in the scabbard and I couldn’t talk for a few seconds. This was easily the worst thing to happen to me in tree work so far – this is my 10th year of production work. You can see that Rob let the top run and as soon as he slowed it down you can hear a ‘pop’ and then this log comes flying past my head from the right side. The instant that shock load hit the rigging, it broke that stem clean off. Upon further inspection, where it broke there was a squirrel nest with babies all curled up. There was only about a half inch of good wood around the outside of that spar, but it had been supporting a live top for many years.
I take full responsibility for this accident. Like most things, it wasn’t just a single detail that got overlooked. It was several things combined. I was the boss, mistakes were made. I felt the pressure of trying to get this job done, they needed it asap, we had already cancelled once, we were heavily invested after renting this lift. My gut told me that the top was too large: “Go small AND Go home”. You have to trust that still, small voice – only you know when something doesn’t feel right.
Here is the ultimate irony in all of this: I refused to climb and rented a piece of equipment to try and be safer, but because of the limitations of that piece of equipment, I ended up doing something more dangerous than I otherwise would have done. Had I been climbing, I never would have taken a top that big, I would have gone up to the crotch and done it in two pieces.
In addition to the size of the top, I can name 3 things right off the bat that I could have done to increase my chances of success in this situation:
1. Fishing Pole technique down the stem that broke, to spread the load more evenly
2. Portawrap should have been rotated around the trunk so that the rope was directed straight down that stem
3. Maybe a higher-stretch rigging line would have helped to absorb some of the shock load
But the bottom line is this – the top was just too big for the situation in that particular tree. Don’t look to your equipment to help you overcome the realities of physics. Physics is unforgiving. Physics doesn’t care if you have 3 kids and a wife waiting for you at home. Physics doesn’t care how many years you have been climbing, or how many tops you have rigged out. With physics, it’s not personal – it’s just business. Being unable to reach something because of your equipment is no excuse to cut stuff that is too big. In production work, we all end up taking chances now and then, but chance has no memory! Getting away with it 99 times does not mean that #100 will work out in your favor!
The pressure to perform may feel externally driven, but ultimately it comes down to internal choices. If you make a bad decision and you get hurt or you hurt someone else, you don’t get to blame it on the boss. You don’t get to say “I was just hoping to get home by 6 so I was working faster than I should have”. If there is one thing that I know in this trade, it is this: When things go bad, they go really bad, really fast. Only you are responsible for your choices. A professional doesn’t shirk responsibility, he leans into it. With great responsibility comes great power. If you are not prepared to take full responsibility for your actions, then please: stop, breathe, re-think the situation. Don’t just say “screw it” and hope for the best. Don’t play games with physics, you are bound to lose in the long run.
Stay safe out there.
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