SINGAPORE: A coroner’s court has ruled the death of a jogger who was pinned by a tree in Marsiling Park a misadventure, adding that there were no external signs of the termite infestation that was eating away at most of the tree, which was 20m to 22m tall.
Ms Loke Xiao Li Dag, a senior technical coordinator at CNA studio, had gone for a jog in Marsiling Park on the morning of Feb 18, 2021, when the tree fell and pinned her. She was 38 years old.
Although a jogging couple who had taken an adjacent path went to help her, they could not lift the tree as it was too heavy. Ms Loke was released only when the tree was cut into three portions with chainsaws and the middle portion lifted.
However, by then there was no heart activity detectable from Ms Loke, who had sustained serious injuries. She was pronounced dead at the park at 8.50am the same day, with her cause of death certified to be multiple injuries.
Her brother, who went to the park with his family to make sense of what happened, said a National Parks Board (NParks) employee had whispered to him that there had been soil erosion.
The brother took a photo of the Araucaria excelsa tree in question and said an academic had given an interview to the media saying that there was nothing wrong with the tree. However, the brother felt that there was in fact an issue with the tree, based on the photo he took.
It was revealed during the coroner’s inquiry that the tree had in fact been infested with a subterranean species of termite.
NParks’ group director of the streetscape division, Mr Oh Cheow Sheng, testified that the termites had entered the tree trunk from underground and did not leave any externally visible sign.
The foliage did not show any sign of poor health, he said, as the living tissue of part of the tree was still functioning and sending water and nutrients to the upper part.
The tree was one of several growing on the upper slope of a knoll at the park, on sandy clay with good drainage, the court heard.
The tree in question was estimated to be 20 to 30 years old, with a height of about 20m to 22m and a girth of 1.3m.
When the termites entered the tree, they consumed the hardwood of the centre and spread upwards and outwards, consuming 80 per cent of the internal wood.
At the time of the incident, only a band measuring about 2cm to 4cm thick of sapwood at the circumference of the tree was not consumed or degraded by the termites.
The structural integrity of the tree had been severely compromised, and it was inevitable that the tree would “fail” eventually, said the coroner.
The moderate gust in the park that morning, along with the force of gravity, was the final push that caused the tree to fall, he said.
INSPECTIONS DID NOT REVEAL INFESTATION
State Coroner Adam Nakhoda accepted the evidence given during the inquiry that the tree in question had been inspected and was reported to be in good condition, with no pests or disease observed.
All three reports for visual tree inspections conducted in October 2016, October 2018 and April 2020 had stated that the vigour of the tree was excellent, its foliage normal and its crown balanced.
Such a termite infestation, which is very rare, would have been detectable only through an advanced level inspection, which is not a blanket first measure for trees in Singapore as it is very costly and not practical to impose for all trees.
The coroner clarified that soil erosion did not contribute to the tree falling, adding that the roots were not uprooted from the soil, meaning it was well-rooted.
The coroner said he was “heartened” by work done by NParks in conjunction with tertiary institutes to develop new diagnostic tools to detect damage to trees, including termite infestations, without the need to do invasive checks.
He said one can “only hope” these advances could be adopted soon and be used more widely during inspections.
He gave his condolences to Ms Loke’s family. Her parents and older brother attended the hearing, and her brother read out a statement.
In his statement, he thanked the coroner for his patience as the family sought answers.
“It has been over two years since my dear sister’s passing, made all the more painful on public holidays and occasions where the family would ordinarily gather – such as Chinese New Year’s ‘ren ri’. Not a day goes by without our family thinking of her. These occasions and celebrations are now cold and hard without her,” he said.
He said the incident was especially painful for his parents, who lived with his sister and are old and frail. Ms Loke had cared for another brother in the home, who had a disability, but this is now left to his parents.
He said his parents are unable to come to terms with the sudden departure and the “horrific manner” in which Ms Loke passed.
“Xiao Li was the best of us and it is unfair that her young life, full of potential and greatness, ended in tragedy,” he said.
He said he was grateful to Ms Loke’s friends and colleagues who supported the family.
While it was painful for the family to attend the coroner’s inquiry, he said the facts have been made public, including their own observation of severe termite infestation.
“We do not know when the pain for our family will end, but all we ask is that Xiao Li’s death not be in vain. We hope whatever necessary corrective actions will be taken, so no other family has to suffer as we did. We hope that public safety will always be paramount in the consideration of the authorities,” he said.