BRUNSWICK COUNTY, Va. (WRIC)—Some locals are claiming a tragic crash that took two lives could have been prevented if a state agency had only listened to the public's warnings.
There is perhaps no greater grief than that of a mother who loses a child. Grief, what ifs and memories of her son, Tommy, now consume Carrie Basham's life.
"I'd a gave my life to keep that boy here," she said. "It's just hard for me to imagine that I'm never gonna see him again and I'm never gonna be able to hold him … I think about him 24/7."
Tommy Ray Matthews, 33, was killed on May 2, 2013, when the vehicle he was riding in slammed head-on into a giant fallen tree lying just over a blind hill on Route 46 in Brunswick County.
"He weren't perfect, but he was mine," Basham said.
A chaotic scene on a dark country road claimed two lives: Basham's son Tommy and Sonny Davenport, the boyfriend of the driver, Sara Turner.
"I lost the love of my life," Turner said. "The only thing that saved me was my seatbelt and airbag."
Like Basham, Turner is also wracked by what ifs.
"Every time I go by and see the crosses it really—it eats at me," Turner said.
What's eating at the victims' loved ones are questions about why numerous warnings raised about the ancient, fallen tree were ignored by both Brunswick County and the Virginia Department of Transportation. Residents who live near the crash scene told 8News Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe that the tree falling was no surprise.
"No surprise to the people in the community, because we feared that it might happen anytime for quite a period of time," said Wayne Hyde.
Hyde had been sounding the alarm about the tree, and says it had been leaning toward the road for years.
In March of 2010, VDOT was doing bridge work right alongside the tree, which was located in VDOT's right of way. The project map indicates the tree was marked "Preserve."
An internal VDOT email chain shows that Hyde went to the department and voiced his concern about the 60-foot oak. A structural engineer responded saying the oak, "could not be removed without going outside of the ROW."
Hyde claims he then got a notarized letter from the landowner giving VDOT permission to go on to her property to remove the tree that was within its right of way.
"Landowner did give permission to remove the tree," Hyde said.
But nothing was done; records show that months later, in August of 2010, Hyde stood before the Brunswick County Board of Supervisors and told them the tree was "causing a traffic hazard and should be removed." In January 2011, he raised the same concern.
When asked if the county ever took any action Hyde answered, "Not until the thing fell and killed two people."
Robert Bowman, a VDOT maintenance engineer, said, "We cannot find anything that we did unusual or that we would have done differently … Based on the knowledge we had of the tree at the time we were doing the design work and the indication from the arborist, there were no visual defects on the tree."
Five days after the deadly crash that killed Matthews and Davenport, VDOT arborists inspected the tree for the first time. 8News obtained a "Tree Failure Inspection" that show the more than 100-year-old oak tree was in fact two trees grown together. The trees looked good from the ground up, but underground were filled with a "significant amount of rot and decay" and literally "tipped over under their own weight." The assessment also states that "a determination needs to be made whether the tree should remain or be removed then an arborist should be consulted,"—something that was not done in this case.
Bowman said that VDOT design staff determines whether or not a tree should be preserved—a decision Basham claims cost her a son and her grandson a father.
"If they'd have taken the tree down, they could have saved him," Basham said. "Could have saved that other little boy, too … come to find out, VDOT coulda kept my baby here if they'd just done their job."
"All ‘cause of a stupid tree," Basham said. "Stupid, rotten old tree."
While expressing sadness over the lives lost in this tragedy, VDOT's manager also wrote in a report that—knowing what VDOT knows now—the department's own employees who worked on the bridge project were in serious danger from the tree resting over them while they worked.
Copyright 2013 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond
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