Female tree surgeon crushed to death by Ash at National Trust estate

Female tree surgeon, 42, was crushed to death by falling Ash as she was cutting down trees with chainsaw at National Trust estate in Kent, inquest hears

  • Debbie Austin had been felling diseased trees at Ightham Mote on December 7
  • The arborist had been ‘struggling’ to get the right stance before the tragedy
  • A HSE investigator said the work ‘has a very high level of accidents and fatalities’ 
  • Miss Austin has been described as ‘one in a million’ by her loved ones

A tree surgeon was crushed to death while cutting down a dying Ash tree on a National Trust estate which fell on top of her after being sheared off 25ft above where she was stood, an inquest heard. 

Debbie Austin, 42, had been felling diseased Ash trees at Ightham Mote, in Sevenoaks, Kent, in December last year.

The ‘highly experienced’ arborist had been working as part of a team of three when the trunk of the Ash unexpectedly split and collapsed onto her.

Debbie, right, suffered a crushed chest, pelvis and leg in the tragic accident on December 7 last year. She had been felling a diseased Ash tree with a chainsaw when the trunk split and toppled onto her

The ‘highly experienced’ tree surgeon had been working with her two colleagues for several days on the National Trust estate in Kent. William Jordan desperately tried to save her after the trunk splintered, before paramedics pronounced Miss Austin dead at the scene

She had been working for Estate and Field Management Ltd, to clear a number of the dying trees for the National Trust estate on December 7.

An inquest into her death heard that the standard way to fell trees is to climb them and cut into small sections from the top.

But Ash trees with dieback disease are known to be brittle, making them too dangerous to climb and use the normal method of cutting the foliage safely.

Coroner James Dillon heard that Miss Austin and her two colleagues, William Jordan and Jerry Edwards, agreed to use the more traditional method of cutting the tree manually from the bottom of the trunk.

They ruled out the usual preferred methods of felling as they were not suitable for the location and the state of the trees.

Miss Austin began using a chainsaw to make a V-shaped cut through a third of the trunk on one side, before cutting through the other side.

The tree should have ‘hinged’ over the missing wedge before falling in that direction according to Kent Online.

The team realised that the tree would fall across a public footpath seven meters away, so stationed Mr Jordan near the area to keep anyone out of harm’s way.

But the trunk of the Ash tree Miss Austin was felling suddenly split upwards, causing the trunk to shear off 25ft above her and crash into her.

Mr Jordan explained to the hearing that it all happened in ‘less than a second’, with Miss Austin unable to move out of the way, as he rushed to help.

He began desperately cutting the tree trunk in an attempt to get it off her, as two walkers called the emergency services. 

She was initially alive but unconscious after the horror incident, but paramedics declared her as dead when they arrived on scene.

A post-mortem found she had died from haemorrhage and poly trauma, suffering from a crushed chest, pelvis and leg.

The team had been several days into the work on the Ightham Mote estate, which was expected to take a month, when the tragedy happened.

Mr Jordan explained to the inquest that felling certain trees in the area were challenging, because it was on a slope and surrounded by brambles.

He added that Miss Austin seemed to be struggling to find an ideal stance, but explained it was ‘understandable’ why she had cut the Ash tree at the height she had.

An inquest heard that Debbie was ‘one in a million’ and ‘irreplaceable’. A jury of five men and five women reached a conclusion of accidental death

A Health and Safety Executive investigator found that the entire team had the correct equipment for the job. They also found that the method of cutting the tree down was appropriate in the circumstances

After inspecting the trunk the following day realised that it would have been possible to cut lower down with a heavier chainsaw, which would have been more difficult to handle on the terrain.

Her death was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive, with Inspector Kevin Golden explaining to the inquest that all staff had the necessary qualifications and had recently attended a refresher course.

He agreed that the method use by the team was appropriate in the circumstances and they had all been supplied with the correct protective equipment.

Insp Golden added that the accident was caused by the diseased condition of the tree, and said that Ash trees with dieback were ‘unpredictable.’

He said: ‘Unfortunately this type of work has a very high level of accidents and fatalities.’

A jury of five men and five women reached a conclusion of accidental death at Miss Austin’s inquest.

Paying tribute to Miss Austin, her partner Michelle-Austin Jones told the inquest that she was ‘one in a million’ and always gave ‘100per cent into everything she did.’

She added: ‘She is irreplaceable. The world is a much darker place without her. She will be missed terribly by all her family and friends.

‘To finally find the love you have been searching for all of your life and then to lose her four years later is unbearable.

‘Debbie truly was a beautiful soul, strong and inspirational. I will miss her for the rest of my life.’

The National Trust team at Ightham Mote had hired the group of tree surgeons to remove Ash dieback disease from their forest. The foliage which is damaged by the disease often becomes brittle, making them dangerous to climb 

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