Ella Henderson: Girl, 6, crushed to death by decayed tree at school after council failed to cut it down

Ella Henderson: Girl, 6, crushed to death by decayed tree at school after council failed to cut it down
Ella Henderson was killed by a rotten tree at school in September 2020 (BBC)

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, UNITED KINGDOM: A local authority has been fined £280,000 ($340,144) on Tuesday, January 10, for failing to cut down a decaying tree that crushed a little girl, 6, to death. Ella Henderson was playing ballerinas with friends when a large section of a rotted willow tree struck her under 32mph gusts of wind in the playground of Gosforth Park First School in Newcastle on September 25, 2020. While the other children scrambled away, Ella received fatal injuries and died the next day. 

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Ella’s parents, Neil and Vikki, who watched the hearing via video link, read a statement to a court: "No family should ever have to go through what we are going through. We hope lessons will be learned from this and feel there needs to be better education and information around which trees are appropriate for school playgrounds and the size they are allowed to grow to." Newcastle City Council, which was contracted to maintain the trees on its premises, admitted failing to ensure the safety of Ella and others at the school under the Health and Safety at Work Act and was fined £280,000, with £8,201 ($9,960) in costs at South Tyneside Magistrates' Court, as per the DailyMail.

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The tragedy could have been avoided if the willow which had a 35-degree lean and significant decay to its stem had been safely felled when it was identified as showing signs of decay by a qualified arborist in February 2018. However, since the inspection was carried out by a less qualified team, the danger posed by the tree was missed. Prosecuting on behalf of Health and Safety Executive James Towey revealed the cause of death as crush asphyxia to the court. 

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Ella's mother further made a statement that was read to the court: "The hardest part is that all we did was what every other parent does every day. She should have been so safe at school and knowing that I'm the only one who doesn't get to pick their child up every day is just the worst feeling. When I pass schools on the way somewhere and hear that innocent noise of children playing, I think, that was all she was doing. She was just playing ballerinas with her friends. Life is so unfair, and she was so loved and had so much to give this world. As her reception teacher said, 'The world is a much sadder place without Ella in it.'"

On behalf of Newcastle City Council, Ben Compton KC issued an apology to Ella's family. "I want to acknowledge the terrible loss that Ella's parents and family have suffered. Their statement made hard reading, even to the most battle-weary lawyer," he said, as per the outlet. "Nothing I can say will act as any consolation, but I do, on behalf of the council, want to express my heartfelt condolences to them and for the failings that have been very fairly laid out by the prosecution. The council's guilty plea was tendered immediately, it is refreshing to see a full facts admission made at the first available opportunity. These failings are fully accepted."

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Compton said a full review of the council’s arboriculture services, which include monitoring individuals and checking reports had been due to take place in 2020 but got delayed due to the pandemic. District Judge Zoe Passfield also added how one examination of the willow tree by the council team had lasted just one minute. "One survey appears to have been completed in only one minute, suggesting the bare minimum visual inspection took place despite the original inspection finding signs of decay in 2018," she said. 

Detective Inspector Steve Byrne, of Northumbria Police, described the incident as “incredibly tragic.” “This was an incredibly tragic incident and our thoughts go out to Ella’s family and loved ones at this unbelievably difficult time," she said. 

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