Democracy Dies in Darkness

Morning Mix

'The man in the tree' mesmerizes Seattle — from 80 feet

By Yanan Wang, Jenny Starrs

March 23, 2016 at 6:26 AM

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A man climbed an 80-foot sequoia tree in downtown Seattle on the morning of March 22, sparking a viral conversation about "Man in Tree." More than 14 hours later, he's still there. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Seattle's lofty sequoia tree has seen its share of hardships over the years.

Since 1973, it has valiantly stood at a cramped street corner at a three-way intersection, an urban space dwarfed by the leafy tower's 80-foot stature. It was once the official downtown Christmas tree, shouldering sparkling lights against the city's often gray skies.

In 2006, a violent windstorm stripped the sequoia of its top 10 feet, the Seattle Times reported. Over the next four years, the tree's health deteriorated, prompting an examination by an internationally known tree expert and emergency soil treatment from the city Transportation Department's Urban Forestry unit.

Through all this, the tree has stood its ground, undeterred by life's cruel whims. But on Tuesday the Seattle icon was confronted with its greatest challenge yet: a bearded, wool-cap-wearing, orange-peel-throwing man.

A 911 call about 11 a.m. alerted local authorities to the presence of the man, who had somehow made his way nearly to the top of the conifer. Police arrived on the scene and attempted to extract him from the tree, but the man refused to speak with them, the Associated Press reported.

He illustrated his point by shouting curse words, throwing pine cones and orange peels at passersby, and hurling an apple at medics below. He also requested a pack of Camel Crush cigarettes, KOMO News reported.

The man claimed to be carrying a knife, the Seattle Police Department said in a statement. When asked by a Twitter user whether he was a danger to the public, authorities responded that the "issue appears to be between the man and the tree."

They call him “Man in Tree.” (Grant Hindsley/seattlepi.com via AP)

As hour after hour passed, the man continued to shout intermittently and rip branches from the tree. At the start of his occupation, the AP reported, he wore a red knit cap that was later dropped.

Police told the Seattle Times that they were concerned about the man's mental health and did not want to rush the rescue lest it jeopardized his safety.

"They're doing a great job controlling the area," witness Brandon Foley told the Times. "It seems like they're controlling him. They're getting pine cones consistently thrown at them."

The standoff crippled downtown traffic during the day, causing several bus routes to be diverted.

The identity of the man is not known, but some onlookers told the Times that he resembles a homeless man in the area.

"I've seen him around downtown," James Arriola said.

Scott Bonjukian, who works on the seventh floor of a building next to the tree, wrote in an email to The Washington Post that he was alerted to the man when he heard a police officer yelling at him through a bullhorn.

"We watched for several hours as police tried to talk him down," Bonjukian said. "It was somewhat funny until he started ripping off limbs and defecating."

He added: "Homelessness and affordable housing have become big topics in Seattle, along with lack of funding for mental health at the state level. I'm sure this will spur conversations about those kinds of policy, along with more hashtags and parody Twitter accounts."

One such account, @Man_In_Tree has already tweeted more than 250 times, alternating between puns and serious hopes for the man's well-being.

Despite the concern expressed by many that the man needs immediate medical attention, others have found the puns difficult to resist. Even the police tossed one into the ring.

After nightfall, Phoenix Jones — a costumed citizen do-gooder who has styled himself like a Marvel superhero — arrived to offer his services, but the authorities declined his assistance.

As of 3 a.m. Pacific time, the man was still up in the tree and appeared to be nestled in a makeshift nest among the branches.

A KOMO News live stream of rescue efforts can be viewed here.

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Yanan Wang is a reporter on the Morning Mix team.

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