Fallen elm affects commuters

Damages to SPU's Student Union Building are being assessed after a 35,000+ pound tree fell onto its roof last Friday

Julia Battishill and Blake Dahlin

Felix Amenyo and his friends were studying in the Eaton hall lobby on Friday night, as surely countless other students were across the Seattle Pacific University campus, when they heard an unrecognizable crashing noise from outside the windows.

Running out the door to investigate, they were met by the sight of a massive elm tree on its side, leaning against the rooftop of the Student Union Building.

The windows of the SUB collegium were shattered, and, according to Amenyo, the windows on the adjacent SUB walls were shaking loudly and visibly for moments after the impact.

Later, students would learn that the roof of the collegium was also punctured by the tree, and the  skylight above the mailboxes were damaged. No one was injured.

The incident, besides causing extensive damage, displaced SPU’s commuter students, who use the collegium during the school day. The damages to the building are now being assessed, and consulting arborists are analyzing the causes of the fallen elm as well as next steps for the Loop’s remaining trees.

Dave Church, Assistant Vice President for Facility Management at SPU, explained that the elm tree that fell weighed approximately 35-40,000 pounds.

“The roof has at least three large holes, many…smaller holes, and the window wall sustained one broken [pane] of glass, the chimney sustained damage, and a skylight was broken out.”

The floor and furnishings in the room also sustained damage, due to the rainwater, fallen ceiling material, and tree branches coming in through the holes in the roof.

The tree is suspected by many to have fallen due to severe winds, which began that morning. The National Weather Service had issued a severe wind warning, which would be in effect until the next morning, Feb. 1, at 7:00 a.m.

Scott Baker, principal at Tree Solutions Inc., which is the consulting arborist for SPU, said the conditions were just right on Friday night for an incident like this to occur.

“This tree was a surprise, but not 100%, because any super large tree like this, in conditions like we have, can fall over. When the soil is so wet that there’s no friction left between the roots and the soil,” Baker explained.

He said that, likely due to the wind, the root plate of the elm had pulled  massive roots up out of the rain-soft ground. As soon as that happened, it was too late.

“Once gravity gets ahold they’re overwhelmed, nothing is going to hold the weight of that tree once gravity gets ahold of it,” Baker said.

The tree was carefully removed from the roof of the SUB on Saturday, Feb.1. Baker only came to campus on Saturday to observe and help out, while another tree company —Seattle Tree Care— did the removal, due to their access to a mobile crane device.

“This is what tree care companies do — it’s very dangerous, that’s a 50 ton mobile crane and it’s the most sophisticated piece of [tree removal] equipment we have in Seattle at the moment,” Baker said.

“They take this very seriously, let me tell you.”

The concern for the arborists now is the connection of the fallen elm to the ones surrounding it, and the effect its absence will have on the other roots. Baker described the trees as “adapted to grow together.”

“So now, our obvious concern is, do we have more risk now that this component is missing? What can we do to preserve the other trees?”

The arborists are hoping to keep the trees safe, as well as the buildings surrounding the trees. Everyone wants to ensure that the partial destruction of the collegium is an isolated incident.

Church emphasized the fact that arborists assess the trees often, and they are well maintained.

“The University has an arborist assess large campus trees annually and develop maintenance plans for the trees,” Church said. “The purpose…is to provide both a healthy environment for the trees as well as a safe environment for the University community.”

The collegium is home base for SPU’s commuter students. It has couches, chairs and tables for studying between classes, coffee and a kitchen with a fridge for students to keep their lunches or snacks in.

The week following the incident, Feb. 3 through Feb. 7, was intended to be Commuter Appreciation Week. But the department is not letting the damages to their space slow them down.

Interim Campus Program Coordinator for the department of Student Involvement and Leadership Katie Thomas remembers receiving the shocking news from a student who had been working at the UniCom desk.

Almost immediately, her team set to work figuring out how they could make this as easy as possible on SPU’s commuters.

“The rest of the weekend was trying to figure out where we were going to put the commuter students,” Thomas said. “We decided on the SUB Gazebo room. And you know, it’s Commuter Appreciation Week, we were wondering if we were even going to have it this week.”

Commuter Appreciation Week is now in full swing, operating primarily out of the SUB Gazebo room, with some events and meals moved to other locations, such as the Sharpen lunch at First Free on Tuesday Feb. 4.

Thomas said that her commuter students are missing their space, but are grateful to have another place to go so quickly.

“I think that commuter students are pretty bummed, especially the ones who are in the collegium every day. My team — the Commuter Assistant Team — is super bummed, because they know how important that space is for the people who use it.”

Thomas and her team are working to decide if the Gazebo Room is the best long-term solution. They are also trying to help commuters find access to the things they are accustomed to in the collegium, such as many outlets for laptops and phones.

She wants commuters to know that her team is looking out for them, and trying to provide them with the things they need that the collegium used to provide.

“We’re trying to advocate as best we can for them, to make sure they have spaces on campus they can go to relax, that they know that they can get coffee, that…they have a Commuter Assistant to assist with anything they need,” said Thomas.

While they hope to be back into their space as soon as possible, they know that there is a lot of work to be done

Now that the tree has been removed from the SUB, facilities are working on doing a full assessment of the damages, to determine what repairs are necessary and how long they might take.

“We are still in the assessment and estimating stage.  A timeline will depend upon the extent of damage. We will know more in a couple of weeks,” said Church.

Church advises that students stay aware of weather forecasts, and be careful around large trees in weather like we saw Friday night.

“It’s a good idea to always be aware of your surroundings and be cautious around large trees on and off campus,” said Church. “When areas are cautioned taped off or closed to access it’s always a good idea to heed the warning and stay outside the area.”