On the Merritt Parkway trees offer beauty, danger
A series of recent accidents on the Merritt Parkway involving fallen trees, one which caused the death of 74-year old Massachusetts man Norman Gamache, has raised concerns about the safety of driving on the scenic highway.
Connecticut's Department of Transportation operates a tree-cutting program along state roads to help ensure safety, but it only cuts down dead, decaying or "compromised," trees.
"Preventing any tree from ever having the possibility of falling into a roadway anywhere, would require a massive, clear-cutting effort that would simply devastate roads throughout the state in terms of trees," DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said. "Removing every tree because of what could possibly happen would be ... devastating."
On June 23, a large tree fell on Gamache's car on the southbound side of the parkway in Stamford, likely killing him instantly, Turn of River Fire Department officials said. Two other passengers were in the car and one, Goldie Gitlin, 84, suffered a broken sternum, receiving treatment at Stamford Hospital. Gamache was driving through a heavy, mid-afternoon storm.
Six days later, a tree crashed into two cars on the southbound side of the Merritt between exits 42 and 44 in Westport. Members of the Fairfield and Westport fire departments responded to the crash, and one unidentified person was sent to the hospital.
Nurisck said the June 23 and June 29 tree accidents were caused by storms breaking healthy trees, a predicament DOT cannot resolve. If healthy trees do not pose an obvious threat to the parkway, they are not considered for removal.
Recently, another tree fell on the parkway in Fairfield, causing a three-car accident. No one was severely injured. Nursick said the details of the tree's health are not yet known.
"Its obviously a concern. It's a concern when I drive down the parkway as well .. when it's windy," Westport assistant fire chief William Bingee, a 20-year veteran, said. "Some of the beauty of the roadway involves having the trees, but (DOT has) been cutting them back somewhat in recent history. But we're still having these instances of trees falling onto the roadway, and sometimes, onto cars."
Nursick said DOT regularly cuts down trees, equating it to mowing a lawn. He also noted that the parkway's maintenance is different than other highways because of its natural beauty.
The Merritt Parkway Conservancy seeks to protect the environment surrounding the parkway, sometimes creating a conflict with the DOT.
Merritt Parkway Conservancy Executive Director Jill Smyth said that her group supported the DOT's efforts to maintain the trees and enhance the safety of the parkway.
She agreed that removing all possibility of trees falling on the road would ruin the beauty of the 72-year-old parkway.
In 2007, the most violent accident occurred in Westport when a tree limb crashed into the windshield of a Pelham, N.Y., family, fatally injuring the parents as their sons watched in the back seats.
The family of the parents filed a $15 million lawsuit, which is still pending.
Nursick said the DOT takes precedent over the conservancy, and does not consult it when considering to potentially remove a hazardous tree.
"When we identify a tree that we say, `hey, this tree could fall or ... this tree has been struck numerous times and it's a safety hazard, we want to cut it down,' we don't have any problem doing that on our own accord," Nursick said.