A woman who died after a tree fell on a wedding party at a Southern California park Saturday has been identified as 61-year-old Margarita Mojarro, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner.
Mojarro was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after 5 p.m. Saturday, assistant chief coroner Ed Winter told The Washington Post. An autopsy of the San Pedro, Calif., woman is pending, he added.
About a half-hour earlier, a massive eucalyptus tree had fallen suddenly on a wedding party that was taking pictures underneath it at Penn Park in Whittier, about 20 miles east of Los Angeles.
Around 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Whittier police responding to “multiple 911 calls” arrived at the park to find several members of the large wedding party trapped beneath the tree, a police spokesman said at a news conference Saturday evening.
Among them was Mojarro. Despite reports in some outlets, city officials said they could not confirm Mojarro’s relationship to others at the wedding party.
Police immediately began trying to free those under what they described as a large tree with multiple trunks. Los Angeles County firefighters used chain saws to cut away the branches.
Authorities reported Saturday that one person died at the scene. Five people were taken to a hospital with injuries, Los Angeles County deputy fire chief John Tripp said at a news conference. Although most injuries were minor — “mainly just scrapes and bruises” — one person had moderate injuries and was taken to a trauma center, Tripp said.
Officials did not name any of the injured but noted that a 4-year-old was in critical condition as a result of head trauma, according to a statement by the city on Saturday. It is unclear whether this was the same victim who was taken to the trauma center with injuries later described as moderate.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re giving all the dignity and respect to that family,” Tripp said. “They were here for a joyous occasion and then, unfortunately, a very large tree interrupted that and they right now are going through a lot of issues that we’re trying to make sure [we] support.”
Witnesses described hearing a loud crack and seeing people running from the area, according to the Associated Press. At the news conference Saturday, authorities said the tree collapsed as members of the wedding party were taking pictures after the ceremony at the park.
Gilbert Duran said in a video broadcast on Facebook Live that he witnessed the tree fall while taking photos at a quinceañera party in the park, according to KTLA 5 News.
Duran said he and some friends had been taking pictures under the same tree that afternoon but moved to get better lighting.
It collapsed moments later, he said.
“I watched this thing collapse on a whole wedding party,” Duran, at times emotional, said in his broadcast. “They were running for their life and this thing just fell on top of them. I just watched them go flat. Dude, pray for them.”
Officials described the tree as a very large eucalyptus with “multiple trunks” and said it could have been weakened by California’s ongoing drought.
“Fortunately, there weren’t more people that were injured by the tree collapse,” the fire spokesman said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
He added that other members of the wedding party were taken to a Whittier senior center, where mental health professionals were on hand to help deal with the situation.
On Monday, Whittier assistant city manager Nancy Mendez said the park remained closed — cordoned off by police tape and guarded with extra security — for an ongoing investigation.
“We do have certified arborists on staff, but we are hiring an independent consulting arborist just to investigate the tree failure and see if they can determine the cause,” Mendez said.
She said Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri was reaching out to the family to offer condolences and support after the “awful” incident.
“Trees do fall, [but] I’ve been with the city since 1980 and I don’t recall any other fatality,” Mendez said.
Local media reports noted that there had been heavy rainfall in the Los Angeles area last week, and authorities said that — along with years-long drought conditions that have plagued California — may have contributed to the tree’s weakening, according to the AP.
Tripp, the fire spokesman, noted Saturday that a tree had fallen the year before in nearby Pasadena one day with no indication that anything was wrong.
“It’s just a reminder for all of us that we have to be aware of our surroundings — not that I think this could have been prevented,” he said. “But it’s just, again, showing the vegetation of Southern California is still very stressed from the drought we’ve had over the last five years.”