Girl, six, was crushed to death at school by decayed tree which the council had failed to cut down

Girl, six, was crushed to death at school by decayed tree which the council had failed to cut down

Girl, six, who was playing ‘ballerinas’ with her friends at school lunch break was crushed to death by decayed tree which the council had failed to cut down, court hears

  • Ella Henderson, six, was struck by a falling tree at Gosforth Park First School 
  • It fell on her in the schoolyard on September 25, 2020, and she died the next day
  • Newcastle City Council admitted safety failing and was fined £280,000 in court
  • Ella’s grieving parents said: ‘We now live with a complete hole in our lives’ 

A local authority has today been fined £280,000 for safety failings after a little girl was killed by a decayed tree the council had failed to cut down.

Ella Henderson, six, was playing ballerinas with friends in the playground of Gosforth Park First School in Newcastle when a large section of a rotted willow tree crashed on to her under 32mph gusts of wind.

The other children scrambled away from under the tree, but the largest and heaviest section fell directly on Ella in the accident on September 25, 2020, and she died the next day.    

Today, her grieving parents Vikki and Neil Henderson told South Tyneside Magistrates Court they expected their daughter to be safe when they dropped her off at the school gates that morning.

Ella Henderson, six, died after being struck by a falling tree in the playground of Gosforth Park First School in Newcastle on September 25, 2020

Scores of tributes were left outside the gates of Gosforth Park First School following the tragedy, which was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)

Scores of tributes were left outside the gates of Gosforth Park First School following the tragedy, which was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)

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.

The court heard that the tree had been identified as showing signs of decay by a qualified arborist as early as February 23, 2018, when a further inspection was ordered.

However these were carried out by a less qualified team and as a result, the danger posed by the tree, which stood at the very edge of the playground, was missed.

It meant the willow, which had a 35 degree lean and significant decay to its stem, remained standing when it should have been safely felled.

James Towey, prosecuting for the Health and Safety Executive, told the court: ‘The tragic and untimely death of six-year-old Ella Henderson, a Year Two pupil at Gosforth Park First School, happened on September 25, 2020.

Vikki Henderson, the mother of Ella (pictured) said: 'We now live with a complete hole in our lives. Having a six-year-old who loves life and wakes up every morning with,

Vikki Henderson, the mother of Ella (pictured) said: ‘We now live with a complete hole in our lives. Having a six-year-old who loves life and wakes up every morning with, “What are we doing today, Mummy?” to suddenly this life, is just indescribable’

Following the HSE's investigation, Newcastle City Council admitted a safeguarding failing in relation to the maintenance of the tree

Following the HSE’s investigation, Newcastle City Council admitted a safeguarding failing in relation to the maintenance of the tree

The six-year-old pupil was killed by a falling tree at Gosforth Park First School in Newcastle

The six-year-old pupil was killed by a falling tree at Gosforth Park First School in Newcastle

 

MOTHER’S AGONY: ‘WE NOW LIVE WITH A COMPLETE HOLE IN OUR LIVES’

Ella Henderson

Ella Henderson

‘Up until September 25, 2020, we had the perfect life. There was not one thing we would have changed. We had two happy, healthy little girls who were just the best of friends and life was amazing.

‘Having lived that life, we now live with a complete hole in our lives. Having a six-year-old who loves life and wakes up every morning with ‘What are we doing today, Mummy?’, loving everything we did and everywhere we went, to suddenly this life, is just indescribable.

‘Taking her big sister places now and knowing how much she would love everywhere we go and taking photos without her is heart breaking.

‘It’s not just the big things like birthdays, holidays and Christmas, it’s also all the small everyday things like not washing her clothes, not buying her toys or clothes but knowing what she’d love, not setting her place at the table or booking a table in a restaurant for four.

‘Going to restaurants and being constantly asked “just one child” and having the empty chair at a table for four. Staying in a cottage and instead of her sharing a room together with her sister, there is now an empty bed. It’s just a constant reminder, not that we will ever need one, that she’s not here.

‘Seeing everyone’s life move on and their kids and her friends getting older while we stay still; always with a six-year-old who will never get her front teeth is devastating.

‘When you lose a child you live two lives. The one you should be living and the life you have to live.

‘Knowing how happy we would be and what we would have done in the last two years compared to the life we’ve had to live couldn’t be further apart.

‘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”.

‘Every single part of our lives has changed. Getting up every morning, knowing it’s another day without her and another day she’ll miss.

‘I read something online that sums up this life and it said, “When you died my heart was torn in two. One side is filled with heartache and the other died with you”.’

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‘It was towards the conclusion of lunchtime that Ella was playing with her friends in the playground when a large section of a willow tree that stood on a grassed area adjacent to the playground collapsed and fell directly onto several children.

‘All of them, apart from Ella, were able to climb out from under it and they suffered only superficial injuries.

‘But because of the large piece of tree that fell onto Ella, staff were unable to effect a rescue immediately.

‘She was rescued by the emergency services and taken to hospital. It is most sad that in the early hours of the following morning she lost her life. The cause of death was given as crush asphyxia.’

Ella’s parents Neil and Vikki, who have another daughter Abi, watched proceedings via video link, but Mrs Henderson made a statement which was read to the court.

She said: ‘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.” 

Mr Towey outlined the council’s failure in its duty of care to the court. 

He said the tree needed a further examination by an expert with the highest qualification from Lantra, a body responsible for training arborists and other land-based practitioners.

Mr Towey said: ‘A detailed inspection was carried out by a specialist employed by the council some two and a half years earlier and signs of decay were identified on the tension side of the stem with further decay in the cavity.

‘Further services were carried out by operatives of a lower standard on Lantra.’

Flowering fungii on the bark of the tree should have been ‘a red flag’ that it was decaying but the danger was missed.

The original report from the qualified arborist was also sent to the wrong email addresses in school and was not received by the head for more than two years.

Mr Towey said: ‘There is evidence of the system not working as it should have done in making sure suitably qualified people were carrying out the correct inspection at the correct time.

‘Reports were badly communicated to the school and to other schools in the Gosforth area.

‘The weather on the day had an impact but the failure to carry out a further detailed investigation into the tree’s condition made the failure of the tree foreseeable.

‘The arboriculture team failed to identify the level of decay in the tree, if they had done the tree would likely have been felled.’

Ben Compton, KC, for Newcastle City Council, said: ‘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.

‘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.’

He said a further inspection of the tree should have been carried out by a specialist with a professional Lantra degree but that the request for that inspection had not been specific enough regarding the danger the tree posed.

Staff and pupils at the Newcastle school were offered support following the girl's death

Staff and pupils at the Newcastle school were offered support following the girl’s death

Mr Compton added that a full review of the council’s arboricultural services, which include monitoring individuals and checking reports, was due to take place in 2020 but had to be shelved due to the pandemic.

He said: ‘It is another tragic aspect of this case because one hopes it would have been picked up then.’

District Judge Zoe Passfield imposed a fine of £280,000 on Newcastle City Council, with a further £8,201 in costs.

Newcastle city council asked for and was granted 15 months to pay the sum.

The judge described how one of the examinations of the decayed willow tree – identified in court as Tree 11 – by the council team had lasted for just one minute.

Judge Passfield said: ‘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.

Floral tributes were left outside Gosforth Park First School in Newcastle after Ella's death

Floral tributes were left outside Gosforth Park First School in Newcastle after Ella’s death

‘The council did properly carry out inspections of other trees on the site but Tree 11 was somehow overlooked.’

She said the recommended inspection by a fully qualified arborist was overdue by 13 months at the time of the accident and failures to properly report the decay meant no one at the school was aware of the danger it posed.

The council said that if a profit-making company had been guilty of the same breach it would have been fined £600,000.

However the judge said she had to bear in mind that the council was responsible for services to the public in setting the fine.

She decided to base the sum on the £18.8million annual budget of the Operations and Regulatory Services Department, responsible for tree management in the city.

The judge said she agreed the council’s level of culpability was ‘medium’.

Chief Executive of Newcastle City Council, Pam Smith, said: ‘Ella’s death was a devastating tragedy, and our hearts go out to her family and friends.

‘While we take our health and safety responsibilities very seriously, we fully accept that there were failings in our processes which is why we have taken the opportunity to plead guilty to the offence at the first available opportunity. We note the Judge’s comments today and fully accept the sentence of the court.

‘Immediately following the incident, we reviewed our processes and as a result, we have put in place new procedures to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

‘We would like to offer our sincere and profound condolences and apologise unreservedly to Ella’s family for their unimaginable loss.’ 

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Stewart Carr

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