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Tree Lover Survived Falling Tree During Hurricane Sandy

Local activist was an inch from serious injury or death during Hurricane Sandy.

Considering a tree nearly killed George Pitts on Oct. 29, it is surprising that he still backs a tree preservation ordinance for Wyckoff.

During Hurricane Sandy, a neighbor’s oak tree fell into the room in which Pitts was resting in his Terrace Heights home.

“We have lots of trees in the front,” said Pitts. “I never even considered this tree in my neighbor’s yard to be a threat.” Both he and his wife, Barbara Lee, were reading by candlelight in their bedroom, a room they considered safe from trees in the front yard.

Lee had briefly gotten up for a drink, when the howling outside rose to a roar and suddenly the book he was reading was knocked clear out of his hand. 

He looked down at his now empty hand to discover it was bleeding and there was the tree next to him in bed. 

Pitts didn’t hear the oak tree crash through his ceiling due to the raucous winds of Hurricane Sandy. 

“A huge piece of ceiling fell on her side of the bed,” he said, not to mention the tree itself. “I can’t even think what would’ve happened if she was there.”

Lee always kidded Pitts about how he liked being on the edge of the bed, the husband said. Pitts noted that if he had shifted just an inch toward the center of the bed he would not be here today. And, had his wife had not gotten up, neither would she.

“There’s some reason we’re still alive,” he said.

The Wyckoff Volunteer Fire Department was the first to respond, Pitts said. Since it was just after dusk, they could not see which tree hit the house. Pitts assumed it was a hemlock since those branches were coming through the ceiling, but the oak had knocked over two hemlocks on its way down.

The long branches of the oak tree acted like springs, Pitts said, actually protecting Pitts’ contemporary ranch house, which still needs to undergo a review by a structural engineer. The tree cannot be removed until he passes that home insurance hurdle.

“It had such a broad canopy, all the limbs helped spread out the weight of the trunk,” he said. Pitts counted five places where the oak hit the house.

The couple spent the rest of the night in a hallway, as far as possible from all trees outside.

Pitts has actually fought for 25 years to preserve the town’s “canopy” trees — those that are 27 inches in diameter or 50 or more feet high.

 “Trees are what make Wyckoff beautiful,” said Pitts, who is also the treasurer of the Friends of Wyckoff.

Part of Pitts’ tulip tree fell onto his other neighbor’s yard and house as well. He had just gotten it professionally trimmed.

“You just never know with the forces of nature,” he said.

This was not Pitts’ first brush with nature. Two years ago, while Pitts was recovering from bypass surgery, he shuffled down his driveway to get the mail. After he returned, he closed the door behind him and heard a huge crash. A limb of the tulip tree came down where he was walking just seconds before.

“I just have to laugh about it,” said Pitts. “I look at the trees and say, 'I'm your buddy. What have I done to you?’”

Have a question or news tip? Contact editor Joseph M. Gerace at Joseph.Gerace@patch.com, or find us on Facebook and Twitter. For news straight to your inbox every morning, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Gary Rabinowitz December 05, 2012 at 07:05 PM
Appreciate all you do in the community, George Pitts. Thankfully yours was just a close encounter. Regarding that tree ordinance, while I agree with you on the aesthetic merits of trees in Wyckoff, my initial reaction is that I would have a hard time supporting a law that would inhibit a homeowner from cutting down trees one fears pose a threat to property or life. Admittedly, I'm ignorant on details, and I would want to know more about this ordinance (Joe Gerace -- here's a good topic for a future patch article). It just seems that most tall trees will be a potential hazard to either a home or a neighbor. With three weather events (Irene, October 2011 snowstorm and Sandy) in the past 15 months alone, prudence trumps "Tree City." Oh well -- glad this story has, all things considered, a happy ending. Cheers GXR

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