MONTGOMERY PARKS

Giggling and Laughing, Then a Rain of Debris

Workers clean up Ayrlawn Park in Bethesda after an accident in which a big tree limb fell on a ride and a picnic table, injuring a woman and her niece.
Workers clean up Ayrlawn Park in Bethesda after an accident in which a big tree limb fell on a ride and a picnic table, injuring a woman and her niece. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Mariana Minaya
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Virginia Heller was pushing her young niece and nephew on a playground ride in Ayrlawn Park in Bethesda when the unthinkable happened: A branch the size of a small tree came crashing down.

It fell 60 feet onto the ride and a picnic table and sent debris flying Sunday afternoon. Pieces rained down on Heller and her 2-year-old niece.

"One minute, you're going around on a ride, and they're giggling and laughing, and the next -- it's a mess," Heller recalled from her hospital bed yesterday.

Heller was taken to Suburban Hospital, where she was treated for a collapsed lung, a concussion, a sprained wrist, a fractured rib and lacerations. A helicopter took her niece, who had head and arm injuries, to Children's Hospital. Her 4-year-old nephew was not seriously injured, Heller said.

Montgomery County park crews removed the 85-foot-tall white oak yesterday and examined the branch, which was 30 feet long and 20 inches in diameter at its thickest spot. The tree's last inspection, in March, showed no evidence of disease or other defects, according to the county Department of Parks.

"As far as we know, it was just a freak accident, which was very unfortunate," said Kelli Holsendolph, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department.

Heller had taken the children to the park Sunday to help out her sister, who had given birth to twins a few days earlier. She declined to give the children's names.

Heller and the children had been at the park for about an hour-- riding swings, going down the slide and mingling with the other children -- before they went to the rudimentary merry-go-round.

Heller was pushing them when she heard a loud sound and looked up.

"I heard a noise all of a sudden, a really loud popping," she said. "It just came crashing down. I just saw things falling on me."

For a few moments, she said, she was stunned and lightheaded. Then she saw her niece.

"She was kind of twisted, and there was a huge piece of tree lodged in her scalp," she said. It was about two inches in diameter.


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