As spectators worked to help free Derby residents trapped by a fallen tree on Friday afternoon in Winfield, they gathered the nearest items available to help leverage the tree. In this case, the many coolers in the area provided support for the tree. Pop up tents, as shown at right, were also destroyed by the tree.
Five Derby residents were injured – three seriously – when a large tree fell during a swim meet in Winfield Friday afternoon.
Dr. Lorraine Alvarado, Paula Kim and Christina Squires sustained serious injuries when the tree fell. All sustained injuries to vertebrae and although each is making progress, they are reportedly facing long recuperation periods.
Alvarado is in a neck brace and as of press time on Monday was hospitalized at Wesley in fair condition.
Kim’s injuries included breaks at both ankles, a broken femur and four damaged vertebrae. She had surgery both Friday evening and Monday morning at Wesley Hospital and was also listed Monday in fair condition.
Squires had a head injury, a broken rib, an air pocket in her lung and a lower vertebrae which was compressed 50 percent. She had surgery on Saturday to fuse the compressed vertebrae to the ones directly above and below it, she said Monday.
Another vertebrae was fractured, but it and the air pocket in the lung are expected to heal on their own. Squires also was being watched due to a head injury, but she said her doctors were satisfied by Monday that it, too, was healing on its own. She said she had hoped to be released Monday, but she needs some improved mobility before that will happen.
Two students, Rachel Onken and Sara Owens, were also injured when the tree fell. Onken suffered an injury to her shoulder, according to Ben Henwood, president of the Derby Dolphins, and was treated and released from the hospital in Winfield. Owens had scratches, but declined treatment and was able to compete in the remainder of the swim meet on Saturday.
In addition to those injured, Kim’s mother, Sandra Whittemore of Maize, was at the scene. The stress of the event caused her to be hospitalized after she traveled to Wesley Hospital with family members.
The hackberry tree snapped at its trunk, nearly 7 feet off the ground, at about 4:30 p.m., according to Winfield Police Chief Danny Parker. Witnesses said it was one of the largest in a line of trees under which spectators at the Great Plains Swim Meet were seeking shade between their sections of the competition.
Henwood said he was inside the pool area when a gust of wind came through. It picked up some of the canopy tents just outside the fencing and turned them over. People in the area helped pick the tents up and within just a short time heard a loud boom, he said.
“Then someone said, ‘Tree down,’” he said.
He, along with other members of the crowd, ran toward the tree.
“There was a mammoth tree laying down,” he said. “From the first sight it didn’t look good.”
The tree had fallen largely where Derby spectators had pitched their canopies, nearly 100 yards from the pool. The tree line was the front of a heavily wooded area and park just north of the pool area.
Henwood’s daughter had been playing Uno with others in the spectator area and he went running to try and find her. He first found Alvarado, who told the spectators she was OK, but even as they pulled the tree off of her she asked them not to move her.
Alvarado had been sitting facing the tree and was able to move slightly before it landed on her, Henwood said.
Near Alvarado, Henwood said Kim was under the tree. She had been sitting in a lawn chair facing away from the falling tree and it pushed her down and trapped her in a squatting position.
“It completely squashed her down,” he said.
Squires had been sitting with a friend and knew her 8-year-old daughter and two of her friends, including Henwood’s daughter, were playing behind her. Squires said Monday she has no memory of the event, but knows from what friends have told her they found her laying on her stomach.
Those friends have also told others that Squires instinctively knew what the sound of the cracking tree meant. She stood and directed the children away, telling them to run in a specific direction away from the tree, Henwood said.
He called her the hero of the day.
“It’s a credit the three little girls were saved because of her,” he said.
The swim meet involved seven teams with nearly 500 participants. Parker said an exact number of spectators is unknown, but officials estimate as many as 1,500 people were in the area.
“There were a lot of people out there,” he said.
At the time of the wind gust, the seventh heat of the 11-12-year-old girls 50 meter freestyle was in progress. With nearly 60 swimmers involved and others gathering for their heats, the highly popular race may have saved others who would have been under the tree.
“It had drawn lots of fans over due to the popularity of that event,” Henwood said.
Those spectators ran to help as they could and groups of people helped hold the tree off the injured women until emergency crews arrived. Parker said Winfield police, fire and EMS crews responded, along with Arkansas City EMS and nearly every city employee in Winfield. The city employees responded with heavy equipment to lift and cut the tree away from those who were trapped.
“As chaotic as it seemed, not just our department, but the people who were there helped when they needed to,” Parker said, adding that the rescue went “quickly and smoothly.”
The swim meet was suspended for the evening, but did resume on Saturday. Many Derby spectators were shook up and did not return, but those who did were offered support from the other teams.
“We had overwhelming support on Saturday,” Henwood said.
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