Branch kills Benjamin Mufti of NW; tree wasn’t ‘an imminent hazard’

October 20, 2011

In the hours after Benjamin Mufti’s death, the news spread among friends and family like a sad game of telephone. The landlord called the ex-girlfriend, who called friends, who called other friends, who tried in vain to reach Mufti’s mother before a detective did.

And at the end of each call, the reaction was the same: First, shock that the vibrant 35-year-old D.C. man was dead, then disbelief that the fatal blow came from nothing more than an errant tree branch.

“That’s not what happens to people,” close friend Monica Forquer said Thursday as she peered at photos of Mufti. “I mean, who has a tree branch just fall on them?”

According to D.C. police, Mufti was walking from his home in the 3100 block of Adams Mill Road NW to a bus stop about 6:20 Wednesday morning. A block from home, police said, a branch gave way and landed on him. CPR was attempted, but Mufti’s head injuries proved too severe.

By 7:30 a.m., the round of calls to his friends had begun.

Mufti grew up in Utica in Upstate New York, Forquer said, and moved to Washington 16 years ago to attend George Washington University. She met him in 2006 when she moved here from Ohio and took a job at Tenley Sport & Health in Northwest Washington, where Mufti was already an experienced personal trainer.

“He was one of the first people I met,” said Forquer, 26. “I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Oh my god, what is that tattoo?’ ”

It was a full-arm tattoo with an ocean scene at the bottom and a pirate ship at the top, she said. “I came straight from the Midwest and met this guy with a tattoo who just goes ‘Let’s go drinking!’ ”

They remained friends, bonding over athletic endeavors and food.

They last spoke Tuesday, discussing plans to run the Richmond Half Marathon. “He had to check what he had going on that weekend,” Forquer recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll let you know,’ and that was it.”

The branch that killed Mufti wasn’t particularly large or visibly damaged, said Jack McKay, a member of the Mount Pleasant Advisory Neighborhood Commission. There had been concerns about branches that were damaged in storms — some had fallen on lawns and cars — but Adams Mill’s elm trees had been inspected recently.

“This wasn’t an imminent hazard,” McKay said.

The city had inspected trees on the street this summer, removing dead and damaged tree limbs, according to Bill Panici, self-described “steward of the Adams Mill Road Elm Tree Project,” which tends to neighborhood trees.

“I’m really very, very upset, because I feel somehow responsible,” Panici said. “But it seems it was just the universe or destiny or fate.”

Forquer said that plans are being made for a viewing and memorial service in the District, after which Mufti will buried in Utica. She added that he is survived by his mother, who lives in Florida, so Mufti’s friends are trying to help with local arrangements.

Mufti’s colleagues at Sport & Health, meanwhile, are also organizing a 5K race in his honor.

“You kind of feel like Ben was stolen from you, you know?” Forquer said.

Looking through photographs, she lingers on one of Mufti after an Ironman race in Lake Placid and on one of him sitting in front of an enormous milkshake after a swimming race in the Chesapeake Bay.

In each picture, he is smiling.

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