Storm victim’s concern about trees proved prescient


Mohammad Ghafoorian, who was killed Friday during the storm, and his wife Shiva, who was injured. (Courtesy of the Ghafoorian family)
July 3, 2012

As Mohammad Ghafoorian built his grand, eight-bedroom house in Northwest Washington, he bitterly clashed with his neighbors because he wanted to remove three unhealthy trees from his rolling property.

“These trees are very dangerous,” he told The Washington Post in 1997 after a neighbor threw her body between his trees and a chain saw.

Ghafoorian — a commanding man who made his fortune as an architect — ultimately cut down the trees and several others. His sense that the neighborhood canopies near Woodley Park posed a hazard was tragically prescient.

He was killed Friday night after a tree near his house toppled, crashing power lines on top of his Maserati, which exploded into flames. As he ran from his house into the dark with a fire extinguisher, he didn’t see a live power line on the ground. He stepped on it.

Ghafoorian was one of five people killed in the Washington region as violent winds ripped through the area, uprooting thousands of trees and turning them into lethal missiles as they smashed into homes and cars. At least 21 more lives have been claimed in Virginia, Maryland and the District as a result of the storms and accompanying heat wave.

Ghafoorian’s wife, Shiva, was injured as she tried to help her husband. She is hospitalized, but her injuries do not appear to be life-threatening, her family said.

“It’s a sad coincidence my father died by a tree accident,” said his son, Reza Ghafoorian, describing the neighborhood tree battle as he stepped around broken glass and the burned car in front of his father’s sprawling home.

The tragedy has another odd wrinkle: Mohammad Ghafoorian’s father was killed in Iran in a freak gas explosion when he was the same age, 67.

To those who knew Mohammad Ghafoorian, he seemed larger than life.

“Everyone who ever met him thought of him as a giant, a very big personality,” Reza Ghafoorian said. “He was very loud, he was very big. He was like a godfather to a lot of people.”

A successful architect and businessman, he would give love advice, business advice, political advice and often money to a parade of people he knew, his son said.

“They’d come to him and sit on this couch, and he’d listen and get into their lives,” Reza Ghafoorian said. “Then he’d lock them in and make them do what he thought was right.”

Ghafoorian said his father was as generous as he was wealthy. His phone has been ringing nonstop since Saturday with people sobbing and telling him tales about his father’s generosity.

“He’d say to me, ‘God has chosen to give me money so I can help other people,’ ” he said.

But his father never backed down from an argument, he said. He got into several legal battles with neighbors, including over the trees and the construction of his driveway.

Mohammad Ghafoorian was prosperous in Iran and brought his wife and two children to California in 1989 because he thought there were better opportunities in the United States. None of them spoke English at the time.

Image was important to him. He forced his son to wear dress clothes to high school every day in steamy Southern California while classmates wore surfer T-shirts and flip-flops.

“People would say to me, ‘You’re always dressed up,” Reza Ghafoorian said. “And I’d say, ‘Not by choice!’ ”

Concerned about earthquakes, Mohammad Ghafoorian moved his family to the District. The change was also in part because he wanted to live in the country’s seat of power, his son said.

When he arrived in the city, his son and daughter attended George Washington University. Mohammad Ghafoorian rented a house near Georgetown and spent the first year driving around the city each day looking for a property on which to build his dream home.

He found it on Woodland Drive, a large chunk of land with a run-down pink house that once housed the Senegalese Embassy.

He knocked it down and spent four years custom building and decorating his three-story, castle-like home with a circular driveway. He was particular about each detail, even hiring four masonry companies to build and tear down an exterior stone wall until it was to his liking. Now, the outside is carefully landscaped, and the inside is filled with rich wood paneling, rugs from around the world, crystal chandeliers and an extensive art collection.

While he could be difficult and demanding, he was unfailingly devoted to his family, abandoning all talk of moving back to Iran after his five grandchildren were born, his son said.

He also had a particular, and often secret, love for animals, his son said. He would find baby squirrels and birds near his home and build them small homes, then bottle-feed them to nurse them back to health.

When he lived in Iran, he had two beloved Great Danes at his home, which was taboo in Iranian culture, his son said. When one of the dogs died, he went to his mosque to pray but ended up crying for days on end.

“He couldn’t say why he was crying, so he’d say he had a death in the family,” his son said, laughing and wiping away tears of sadness. “For weeks, we got flowers to the house.”

In the end, his son said, Mohammad Ghafoorian lived exactly as he pleased, larger-than-life and taking care of those around him.

“He lived like a storm, and a storm took him,” his son said. “I think only a storm like that could take him.”

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