The accident in which a 5-year-old boy died after getting pinned under the root ball of a tree was unusual but not unprecedented, officials said Monday.

Isaac Benjamin of Pownal was killed Sunday at his home while playing in the hole created when last week’s windstorm uprooted a 50- to 60-foot-tall pine tree, officials said.

Isaac’s grandfather, Christopher Gowen, 51, was cutting up the fallen tree to help his daughter, who lives on Merrill Road. Isaac’s father is stationed in Hawaii with the Marines.

Gowen cut through the trunk, a foot and a half in diameter, and when he did, tension in the roots that remained in the ground suddenly pulled the 10-foot-tall stump upright, said Kevin Joyce, chief deputy of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.

The accident went unnoticed for some time, Joyce said. When Gowen looked for Isaac and his 13-year-old sister, he saw some of the boy’s sweatshirt beneath the roots.

The boy apparently had been playing in the 5-foot-wide hole all week, treating it like a fort.

“While family members called 911, the grandfather frantically tried to dig his grandson out from under the tree,” Joyce said.

Rescue workers with the Pownal Fire Department attached a chain from a pickup truck to the pine and pulled the tree back over so the boy could be freed. He was taken by ambulance to Maine Medical Center in Portland, but was pronounced dead.

The state medical examiner determined that he died of asphyxiation from the weight of the root ball compressing his face and chest.

The Medical Examiner’s Office asked Joyce to draw attention to the potential dangers of downed trees, because Isaac’s death was not the first of its kind.

The medical examiner cited the same cause of death on July 2, 2005, when 4-year-old Lucas Herrin was killed in Porter.

The boy and another child were playing in the fort-like space created by an uprooted tree when work on the tree caused the roots to fall back into the hole, Joyce said. One child escaped, but the 4-year-old was killed.

Joyce said it’s not commonly known that uprooted trees can maintain some tension, and occasionally spring back into place once the tops are removed.

The tragedy also serves as a reminder to adults to keep track of young children while working with dangerous equipment, especially when cutting trees, he said.

“Children have no fear and they are drawn to be with family members regardless of the activity,” Joyce said.

He said it’s not uncommon for people to clear downed trees on their own property, although it may be safer to hire professionals.

“Who would have thought this trunk would release that tension?” Joyce said. “(Gowen) was trying to do a good thing, and unfortunately, as a result of that, one bad thing happened.”

Joyce cited the work of the nonprofit Trauma Intervention Program and his department’s chaplain for assisting family members Sunday so that deputies could focus on their work.

Joyce said his department will conduct debriefing with deputies who responded to the accident, and he expects other emergency response agencies might do the same.

“The first deputy to arrive has a 5-year-old child,” Joyce said.

“One of the things he said is, ‘I’m going to give that child a little longer hug when I get home tonight.’“

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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