If a Tree Falls at a Festival…

Afrofest Main Stage

View of Afrofest main stage from under a nice big oak tree anopy: peaceful shelter or impending threat?

I parked my bike against a sapling when I arrived at Queen’s Park for Afrofest on Saturday afternoon. I know I’m not supposed to because the bike frame can damage the young bark, but there was no where else to lock it up. I was careful with the lock, and by the time I found myself lying under one of the big oaks I’d forgotten all about it.

Tree Canopy

Tree Canopy: peaceful shelter or impending threat?

Afrofest is easily my favourite summer music festival in Toronto, so I was there, lounging under a tree in front of the main stage and enjoying the music as usual. Some friends were with me, and we had a pretty good spot staked out with our combined blankets. I had taken a wander about earlier, browsing through the craft tents and having a peak at the two other stages, so when they wanted to grab something to eat, I held on to our spot. I was looking forward to picking up some injara at one of the Ethiopian tents once they returned. But life had other plans.

that girl loves music
This little girl was so excited to see live music

I lay down on my blanket and listened to the music, taking a few shots with my cell camera, loving the excitement the girl in the stroller above showed when she first saw the band. I answered a text message. I closed my eyes to take a quick nap.

The sound of ripping wood tore through the air, followed by the sound of something heavy falling through branches above me and the other families under the tree. People started screaming. It didn’t take much to realize a big (really big) branch was tearing away from the tree above me. I didn’t have time to get up and run – the heavy thing falling through branches was more heavy branches, and right above my head. I lay my arm over my head to protect it, and quietly asked whoever and whatever might be paying attention to my thoughts to not let it be too bad if that was possible. Then I braced for the impact to follow. I was hit by canopy and completely covered, along with 20-30 other people, including kids. Those that managed to get out of the way, or had seen the branch fall, were there right away, pulling the broken branches off the crowd and helping people out. Someone lifted me by the waist and moved me to safety. Parents were calling for their kids, not seeing them immediately. Someone else was crying, “Call 9-1-1, call 9-1-1!” My phone was still clutched in my hand, so I fumbled for the numbers to dial. My hands were shaking, as was every other part of me. I heard three rings before noticing there were already policemen at the scene, pushing people back. I hung up.

I made my way back into the fallen branches as a bunch of men were carrying a large one out of the space and moving it away. Hundreds of acorns littered the ground between the 2″ sea of leaves. I started collecting our things – the blankets, my bag, my friends’ bag, the stroller belonging to the family above. For some reason I felt it was really important to hang on to the stroller so I could get it back to the people it belonged to. I was watching them be guided away by paramedics, and didn’t want them to lose it. Someone nearby held up my shoes (which immediately took me back to an identical moment – minus tree fall – at a Cure show I’d gone to years ago wearing stupid shoes which had come off in the stifling crowd and disappeared only to be recovered later in the show when a nearby woman held them up and asked if they belonged to anyone). By this point I’d let one of the police know I’d been under the tree so that I’d be in line to get checked out. At this point i had no idea how I felt, just that I needed to hang on to the stroller.

Giant Oak Branch

Tiny policeman at the far end of the branch not actually tiny.

My friends came back and started pulling twigs out of my hair and checking out the scratches across my back. The worst damage was to my thigh but I didn’t know that yet. A woman identifying herself as a doctor began helping people with directions from the police at the perimeter. They looked after the kids first, and at some point an ambulance arrived and all the little ones taken on board and checked out. One of my friends let a paramedic know that I’d been hit as well. He asked me how I felt. “I feel like a tree fell on me,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. I was still shaking. Like a leaf.

The woman doctor realized I was in shock and made me sit down. My friend gave me her water. There was a lot of confusion about who was doing what, where. A couple of the paramedics had no equipment with them as they had just come running as soon as they heard the tree crack. My neck and shoulder started aching as the shock wore off. An ambulance bus pulled in.

Another paramedic checked me out and asked if I thought I needed to go to the hospital. I said I didn’t know and he suggested that was a good reason to go. What I really wanted was someone to clean the cuts I’d found, check for the ones I hadn’t, and figure out if anything serious was wrong with the shoulder I’d used to protect my head. And maybe give me some of those decent pain killers that I was going to need sooner than later. I was sitting on the fence about whether or not it was worth going to the hospital for, but eventually fell on the side of caution and was helped to the ambulance bus. At that point I had to lie down as I realized I was about to throw up. The bus paramedic handed me a plastic barf bag.

There were about six of us on the bus together, along with a cute Afro-Canadian paramedic and the older not-so-smooth bus-driving partner. The younger guy split his time between the cluster of women in the middle where I lay and the other pair of women at the back. He said this was the first time he’d ever used the ambulance bus. He was excited about it. He handed out triage cards with varying degrees of danger denoted by symbols including a turtle and a hare. I started up conversations with the two other women with me, one of whom was with her nine-year old niece. I think we were all ultimately really aware how lucky we were that none of us was hurt worse, and really glad to have each other to talk to about the experience. The younger paramedic remarked that he thought the festival had looked really cool, and figured he should plan to check it out next year. I agreed and said I couldn’t wait to go back the next day. Everyone looked at me, and then we all started laughing.

tree scar

The former position of the giant oak branch is visible above.

At the hospital we ended up waiting together. I shared the pictures I’d taken on my phone before and after, and the other women picked themselves out in the photos. CP24 was playing on the television. We were all waiting for the story to show up on the news. The two women who had been at the back of the bus were with us now, too, joined by their father. One of them had lost her shoes and wore blue booties on her feet instead. We all wanted to see ourselves on TV.

At 10:58, some guy wandering around the waiting room (someone who hadn’t been at the festival) reached up and turned the channel to MuchMusic. The rest of us collectively gasped, and were all too polite and too short to switch the channel back. One of the women across from me joked with her father in their native language (Ethiopian?), glancing up at the TV as they did so. I laughed with them and the woman translated for me to properly share the joke – the music videos made her she feel like she was at home in her living room, not waiting in a hospital.

My phone rang. It was a 9-1-1 operator calling back to make sure I was ok. “Were you in Queen’s Park?” she asked. She seemed satisfied with my confirmation. I found it interesting that they could pinpoint my calling location. And eerie.

I played with my shoulder a bit. Something slipped into place and the ache went away.

My friends showed up to give me a lift home, but I was still waiting to be examined by a doctor at that point. One of them said he had seen us on TV. We all got excited and decided to override the music videos when the channel-changer left to wander down the hallway to the other waiting room. When he came back and complained, everyone in the waiting room – most of home hadn’t been struck by a tree – piped up and defended keeping the channel on CP24 so that we could see our story. Ultimately we never saw it aired.

My friends shared their stories of hearing the screams as they were coming back from getting dinner – they had at first thought the crowd was cheering. One of them said his big question was about why I had been hanging on to a stroller.The rest of us shared our stories as well. The woman who’d been knocked out by one of the branches had intended to leave ten minutes before the branch fell, but had stayed because cousins were coming to join her. Another had only been there for twenty minutes, and hadn’t been planning on showing up at all. They were able to tell me that the root of th limb had remained attached to the tree during the first moments, which is probably what saved lives as people were able to run away from the spot. We compared our triage cards. We all had turtles, or less. Two of us had ripped clothes. One of the women with their father said that in their culture that meant that one would receive new clothes. Then she laughed that it was usually because you went out and bought a new one. We grinned.

limbless tree
The day after.

I talked about going back the next day. No one believed me. I said I would carry an umbrella. And not stay in the same place for more than two minutes. And remain standing so that I would be able to run. We all laughed but still no one believed me. As I left with my friends, one of the sister called to me with a grin, “See you tomorrow!”

I did have to go back the next day to get my bike. I found it still parked against the little sapling, both wheels intact. I rode across the park to the site of the tree. The city park workers had had their way with it – the tree had been stripped of all its limbs. I read that arborists had analyzed the tree following the incident and decided it had already rotted out and that the combination of vibrations from the subway below and the music from the stage caused the branch to give away. I didn’t stay. I still haven’t satisfied my craving for Ethiopian food – good thing I live two blocks away from the best Ethiopian restaurants in the city.

2 Responses to “If a Tree Falls at a Festival…”
  1. Janice says:

    Awesome re-cap of the falling tree….always check that the sky is not falling, one is never safe, but only safer. cheers, Janice

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  1. […] returned to Afrofest this year, despite the unfortunate events of a previous occasion. Afrosfest had moved to  a new park in the east end near the beaches. The […]

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