Special West of Twin Peaks Report

Kathleen Bolton KIlled by Falling Tree in Stern Grove

West of Twin Peaks: Kathleen Bolton with her dogs in Stern Grove

Kathleen Bolton treats her dog in Stern Grove

On April 14th, Kathleen Bolton, a highly-respected San Francisco nurse, was killed by a falling section from the top of a tree, after walking her dogs in Stern Grove at 11:30am. Tree failure and gusting winds were blamed. She was loading her three dogs, Biscuit, Lulu and Giselle into the back of her Suburu Legacy when the 56 foot, 17 inch diameter tree section struck her and her car. Her beloved dogs were not injured and have found homes with Kathleen’s circle of friends. She was 50 years old.

A report in the April 30th Examiner, that the tree was “hazardous” was taken “out of context,” according to Rose Dennis, spokesman for Rec and Park, concluding that the accident was not the result of negligence. She said that the tree had been noted in a Tree Management Plan as a part of the 2003 Pine Lake Restoration, which included recommendations for the removal of dangerous trees, as a tree that warranted “aerial surveillance,” a process that involves treeclimbers inspecting individual trees. She could not document whether the tree had been inspected since the five year old report,  because the operation is ongoing, and couldn’t speculate as to the progress of that process. “The removal of designated dangerous trees has been fully implemented,” she said.

Brian Spiegleman, an arborist who supervises the treetopping operations in the park, examined the tree and the fallen section at the scene of the accident. “It was a 60 to 80 year-old Coastal Redwood tree that appeared to be sound, a section of the tree with no decay or disease,” he said, “it was not a limb of the tree, but a secondary trunk that split from the main tree.” He estimated the tree at 100 feet. He had not seen the assessment before he examined the tree, however, he told the Observer.  The section of the trunk was from tree #1243, as identified by the tag attached to the tree. The Tree Management Plan that assigned this tree a hazard rating of 8 on a scale of 12 and the “target” of the hazard as the parking lot in which Kathleen Bolton and her car were crushed.

Mary McAllister, frequent critic of Rec and Park wrote the Observer that “the hazardous trees that remain in Stern Grove are even more dangerous than when they were identified in 2003 because hundreds of trees at the western end of the park have been removed. The wind enters this park—which is shaped like a wind tunnel—from the west. The remaining trees are exposed to more wind and that makes them more dangerous. Trees develop their defenses against the wind in a specific environment.  When they are suddenly exposed to more wind, they are more vulnerable because they don’t have the root structure, limb structure, bark structure to withstand more wind. All this was said (and written) many times to the Dept, the Commission, the mayor, and the Urban Forestry Council. I asked for a wind study that would have phased the tree removal to prevent the failures that are now occurring in the park.  It fell on deaf ears.”

 In a letter to the Rec and Park Commission, Ms. McAllister notes “Comparing the Tree Management Plan with a visual inspection of this area suggests that many hazardous trees remain in Stern Grove. Apparently, the Recreation and Park Department has not taken the actions recommended in 2003 by the Tree Management Plan for Stern Grove. The death of Kathleen Bolton suggests that the public is in danger in Stern Grove until all of the actions recommended by the Tree Management Plan are implemented.   

Therefore, I am simultaneously informing the press of this dangerous situation in the hope that the public will be informed.  I think the public should be in a position to decide for themselves if they wish to take the risk of continuing to visit this park. If I were the Recreation and Park Department, I would consider closing portions of this park until they are safe.  Certainly, the Department will have even greater liability if they choose to expose the public to further harm after this fatal reminder of the risks.   

I have written the Department and the Commission and testified to the Commission and the mayor many times about the hazardous trees in Stern Grove, and other parks as well.  In conclusion, I quote from my letter that was delivered to the Commission during my testimony on May 5, 2004: ‘If massive tree failure occurs in this park, resulting in the destruction of property or life, the Recreation and Park Department will be liable for compensation because there is substantial public record that these failures were predicted and could have been avoided by responsible preventive measures.’

 “Wherever there are trees, there is the possibility of failure,” Spiegleman said, “whenever

you are under a tree this can happen.” Asked about the report that a park user heard a loud noise, similar to a gunshot, he said that noises frequently accompany a falling branch, but that the noise “may not have alerted Ms. Bolton to look up,” because the public does not understand the dangers from above that come with the presence of trees. He conjectured that the combination of strong wind gusts coming at the wrong angle could cause failure to limbs and trees, and that the winds could weaken a limb to cause failure at a later time. California Tree Failure Report Program lists 4500 tree failures since it began reporting in 1987. http://groups.ucanr.org/treefail/.

Rec and Park officials arrived at the scene minutes after the police reported the incident, and the park was closed for 2 days while police, fire and urban foresters assessed the accident scene and then assured the safety of the area as a part of their due-diligence efforts.

Rose Dennis, public relations manager for Recreation and Park Department said “the public should not be alarmed, the park has never looked better, Stern Grove is safe for public use. The concerts will go on as scheduled.” 

Kathleen Bolton began her career as a nurse at New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston. When she was 18 years old she worked as a critical care and surgical nurse for the National Medical Consultants, also in Boston. She moved to the Bay Area to attend Sonoma State University, where she received her bachelor degree. She was a Nursing Honor Society recipient, presidential scholar and graduated with distinction. She held a variety of jobs within her profession as well as pursuing her interests in film and her passion for dogs. She served at St. Luke’s Hospital as emergency room and critical-care nurse and worked in public health and case management, hospice and home care. She was a familiar face throughout the AIDS epidemic, working for the SF Home Care Agency beginning in 1989 and dedicating much of her free time to people with AIDS/HIV. She was active in PAWS, Pets Are Wonderful Support.

As Medical-Legal Nurse Consultant, her services included screening for merit, causation, liability, damages, and standards of care, she frequently assisted the courts, lending her expertise as a witness for cases at trial. Even though she was not an attorney, she was a member of the Bar Association and served as President of the American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants, Bay Area Chapter. She testified to the Senate House Subcommittee on Aging and presented her written work on geriatrics.

Most recently she consulted with filmmakers, adding considerable realism to documentary film and commercials, using her first-hand experience with hospital routine and procedures as well as patient behavior.

Her passion for dogs led to another avenue as professional dog walker and trainer. She owned and operated Dog Heaven and provided shelter and refuge to countless dogs. She found homes for many homeless dogs in the wake of the Katrina disaster. More information is available at www.kathleenbolton.org