The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A tree fell, killing two children. Their parents are now warning others.

A billboard outside of Indianapolis spreads awareness about the danger of falling trees after Xander and Ziva Clark were killed last year. (Crystal Clark)
5 min

After finishing lunch at an Indiana campground last year, Brian and Crystal Clark drove their two children around the woods in a golf cart.

They stopped to speak with fishermen at a lake, and Brian told Xander, 9, and Ziva, 8, that they could return after they prepared their camper for the weekend. They were traveling a long path to enjoy the warm weather and strong breeze when Brian and Crystal heard a loud crash.

The couple turned to see that a large dead tree had collapsed on the back of their cart — where Xander and Ziva were sitting. Both children died.

“You stay in shock for quite some time,” Crystal told The Washington Post. “I mean, your children were six, eight inches from you and instantly gone.”

Brian and Crystal have relived that sequence for 11 months — imagining how things could have been different. Recently, they’ve tried to honor their children’s memories by shifting their focus to preventing similar deaths.

This month, Brian and Crystal erected a billboard on a busy highway outside of Indianapolis that features photos of Xander and Ziva and warns others to check their trees.

“Our sole purpose is we don’t want anybody else to feel the pain that we go through every day,” said Crystal, who signs her emails “Mommy of angels Xander and Ziva.”

“If actually just planting that little seed in their mind does save one of their family members, friends, whatever the case is, then the legacy of our children saves someone else.”

While Xander was easygoing, Ziva was energetic — opposite personalities that Crystal described as “yin and yang.” When Ziva sang and danced to pop songs in the living room of their Indianapolis home, Xander walked in front of her to steal her spotlight. While fishing, Ziva threw rocks at Xander’s pole but proudly kissed the fish he caught.

Xander practiced basketball daily and dreamed about playing professionally while watching Indiana Pacers games. Ziva aspired to be an Olympic gymnast.

On April 23, 2022, the Clarks visited the Quincy, Ind., campground to enjoy a weekend of fishing and family bonding. They ate a smorgasbord of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, leftover steak and ramen noodles for lunch.

As they drove around on the golf cart around 1:30 p.m., Brian said he heard a crash and jumped off. When he saw a 40-foot tree on top of his children, he was in denial. Reality set in as Crystal screamed, and they called emergency services.

Paramedics arrived minutes later, prepared to board the children onto a helicopter, Brian said, but found Xander and Ziva dead.

“I don’t know that the anger or the pain ever goes,” Brian said. “Every day I’m reminded that they are not here, and every day that’s a different angry level.”

The U.S. Forest Service warns that trees can fall at any time, especially during windy and snowy conditions. Some signs that a tree is damaged and at risk of falling include an absence of needles, bark or limbs, and the presence of ants or numerous woodpecker holes could indicate the tree is rotting.

While tree collapses rarely cause fatalities, Brian, 50, and Crystal, 41, learned that what happened to them isn’t unheard of. A study by Natural Hazards found that 407 people died of wind-related tree failures between 1995 and 2007. On March 5, a woman was killed by a toppling tree while hiking with her son’s Boy Scout troop in California. On Tuesday, two people were killed and another three were seriously injured after multiple trees fell around the Bay Area during storms, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

After Xander and Ziva died last year, Crystal shut the doors to their rooms to avoid seeing a toy or trophy that would provoke memories. She and Brian were reminded of their children each time they ate, preparing food for two instead of four. When they saw Xander or Ziva’s friends playing sports, they wondered how their own children would have fared.

Last summer, Brian and Crystal returned to the campsite for the first time since the accident. On the 45-mile drive, Crystal shared an idea with Brian: “What do you think about putting the kids on a billboard?”

Crystal designed an image on PowerPoint and began contacting billboard advertising companies, though her early attempts were unsuccessful. It was only after Crystal posted a warning on Facebook on a windy day in December that a friend advised her to contact Lamar Advertising Company, which agreed to create a billboard.

The billboard they ended up with shows Xander in his taekwondo uniform and Ziva wearing her leotard, with a message underlining how checking trees after storms, heavy rain and wind could save lives. It was placed on Interstate 70 in the direction of the family’s campsite on the first week of March. The message also ran on nine digital billboards across the state for two weeks.

While Brian and Crystal don’t know if they’ll ever fully process their children’s deaths, they hope Xander and Ziva’s smiling faces on the billboards will leave an impact.

“If there’s just one that it saves,” Crystal said, “then that is a comfort.”