Thursday, August 21, 2008

Woman Still Fighting for Life after Struck by Falling Tree


by Conor Greene

RIDGEWOOD – In a split second, a stroll down Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood turned into a fight against death for a city corrections officer who was struck in the head by a large tree which fell from an elevated freight yard last weekend.

Donna Rypkema, a 10-year veteran of the Corrections Department, was transferred last Monday night from Wyckoff Heights Medical Center to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan for surgery to relieve life-threatening brain swelling.

There was no further information on her condition as of press time on Wednesday.

She was struck on the head Sunday afternoon as she walked along Myrtle Avenue near the intersection of Fresh Pond Road. The tree, which appeared to be dead, fell from a yard adjacent to Long Island Railroad tracks that is leased by New York and Atlantic Railway.

Witnesses said it is common for smaller branches to fall from the yard onto the sidewalk below, where Rypkema, 38, was struck. “There are always branches falling from there,” one resident told NY1. “Never that size, but always branches falling down. It’s sad that this is probably what it takes to have somebody come up there and cut all that down.”

Rypkema, who is assigned to Rikers Island, was walking through the street fair on her way to meet her sister for manicures when the 20-foot tree uprooted and fell down the hillside onto her. She went into cardiac arrest as shocked witnesses looked on and was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

Witnesses said they heard a crack and then screaming as the tree struck the woman, who immediately began bleeding profusely as her sister screamed for help. “It was like something out of a movie,” said Eli Kairey, who owns a store near the scene. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Francisco Rodriguez said that the tree came down right after a train passed by. Residents believe it was the vibrations from by the train together with the weakening of the roots beneath the dead tree that caused it [the tree] to topple to the ground below . “So when the train went by, it collapsed,” he said. “It broke into pieces when it fell.”

Other parents said that they purposely avoid walking under the freight yard because the tree was leaning precariously over the sidewalk. “I’m a paranoid father, so I don’t want anything to happen to my son,” said Scott Lopez. “So I stay away from this area.”

In the days following the accident, family and about 100 co-workers remained by Rypkeman’s hospital bed in Wyckoff Heights and in the chapel until she was transferred to Manhattan.

“She is by all accounts a revered, beloved, and very popular corrections officer,” Correction Department spokesman Stephen Morello told reporters outside Wyckoff Hospital.

Her husband and 15-year-old son were initially too distraught to speak with reporters, according to the Corrections Department. Her husband, Louis Abreu, later told the Daily News, “What can I say? It’s a tragedy... She’s well loved by a lot of people. She’s a very good woman.”

Her brother, Michael Rypkema, told the newspaper that CAT scans revealed that her head injury was causing brain swelling, a potentially life-threatening situation that led to her transfer to New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “They’re going to try and reduce the swelling,” he said. “Right now, we’re really just concerned about my sister.”

Paul Victor, president of New York and Atlantic Railway, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the accident. He told WCBS-TV, “I’ve been in this business my whole life... Never have I seen anything like this worldwide.”

He said that recent rains might have caused the tree to fall and disputed witness accounts that a freight train had passed through at the time of the accident. He said that the company’s GPS system shows that it had been more than two hours since a train had been in the area. “If we are responsible, I’m sure we will live up to our responsibilities,” he said.

Above: Paramedics rush Donna Rypkeman into Wyckoff Heights Medical Center after the she was struck in the head by a falling tree.
Left: An officer stands at the scene at Myrtle Avenue.
The Forum Newsgroup/photos by ROBERT STRIDIRON

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