Inquiry into Angus man crushed by tree

Brass Scales of Justice.
Brass Scales of Justice.

A man today (Thursday) told an inquiry how a life-long friend gave him a thumbs up signal seconds before he was crushed to death by a falling tree.

John Phillips died aged 29 on land owned by friend David Cochrane’s family in rural Angus.

Mr Phillips - who worked as a tree cutter - and Mr Cochrane were felling trees beside a road at Auchindorie Farm, near Kirriemuir, when the tragedy occurred on March 14, 2013.

Mr Cochrane told a fatal accident inquiry at Forfar Sheriff Court that he had been operating a Caterpillar Telehandler machine attached to the trees they were cutting by a wire while Mr Phillips used a chainsaw to cut the trees down.

The inquiry heard Mr Phillips was only trained to cut trees up to 380mm wide - but that the tree he was working on was 1100mm wide.

However, a Forestry Commission expert said he had been using the correct tools and techniques, and that the tree had fallen in an unexpected direction, landing directly on top of Mr Phillips, because a “hinge” piece of wood had been “compromised” during cutting.

Mr Cochrane, 32, said he had known Mr Phillips since childhood and their families had been friends for years.

Speaking of the moment his friend was killed, Mr Cochrane said: “The wire rope was attached to the tree quite high up.

“I was in the telehandler, which was attached to the other end of the wire, around 60 metres away.

“He gave me the thumbs up and I began to move to pull the tree down towards me.

“Instead of coming towards me the tree broke away from the stump and fell the wrong way. “There was no going back once it broke off - there’s nothing you can really do and it could have fallen in any direction.

“It was very, very quick - all within two or three seconds between the tree coming down and landing.

“Once it broke John tried to run away.

“He was running away to try and get himself clear.

“The tree landed on the ground on top of John.

“I detached the rope and drove the telehandler over and used it to lift the tree clear of John.

“I just lifted it straight up and left it suspended.

“I was shouting to see if I got a response but when I got to him there was no pulse.

“I could see by the damage caused by the tree that there was nothing I could have done.

“The tree came down on top of him and pinned him to the stump of the tree we had done previously.

“I’ve gone through the moment thousands of times in my head but there’s nothing I could have done.”

Sheriff Gregor Murray said he would give his determination in writing in the next two weeks.

He said: “These inquiries are not here to establish blame but to try to learn from it for the future if we can.

“It is clear from the evidence that this was a genuine tragedy which I don’t think anything beyond Mr Phillips’ actions could control.”