As it investigates fatal tree fall, UC Berkeley promises transparency

On Thursday, UC Berkeley crews were investigating a fallen eucalyptus near Gayley Road that killed a Novato man on Jan. 6. Photo: Kate Rauch

UC Berkeley is still assessing why a large eucalyptus fell on a car on Sunday, killing the driver, according to campus spokesman Dan Mogulof.

The results of the investigation will be public, he said. He doesn’t know when it will be completed.

“We’re looking at everything. We take this very seriously, someone lost their life here,” he said.

Alexander Grant, 32, of Novato, was killed when the 250-foot-high tree crashed on his car as he traveled on a campus driveway leading onto Gayley Road, north of the Greek Theatre. The tragedy occurred at about 3:45 p.m. on Jan. 6.


Gayley Road, a thoroughfare along the eastern edge of campus, has been intermittently closed this week as Cal examines the tree and removes others damaged during its fall, Mogulof said.

Arborists and other experts are evaluating the fallen tree’s condition, the condition of the surrounding ground and all factors that might have contributed to the incident, said Mogulof.

“Everything that could be relevant to the accident is now going to be very carefully reviewed and analyzed,” he said. “What does it tell us about what we should do with other trees?”

This includes finding out when the toppled eucalyptus was last inspected by UC, he said.

The university regularly reviews the condition of its trees, Mogulof said. Multiple assessments have been done in the past two years. “We are, as part of the current assessment, ascertaining which of them [the assessments] looked at the tree that fell. This, too, is information we will be collecting and analyzing as part of the comprehensive review that is being done in the wake of the tree fall.”

One of the ways UC gets information on its trees is through GIS data, using software from ArborPro, a company that contracts with universities and other large jurisdictions on tree management. The company uses its mapping software to prepare a comprehensive visual inventory of a customer’s trees and provides “the user with an immediate visual representation of any tree in the urban forest,” according to the company’s website.

Lee Nachtrieb, a certified arborist with Bartlett Tree Experts and a Berkeley resident, said that the sad reality is that trees don’t always give clues as to their inner health. Nachtrieb is not currently a contractor with the university. Years ago, with a different company, he did some work at University Village.


The state’s recent drought was a major stressor for trees, he said. Heavy rains can also create problems.

“There are a lot of hidden factors, a lot of conditions within trees and below the ground that we just can’t see,” Nachtrieb said. “When it comes down to it, trees are complex organisms that respond in ways we don’t fully understand.”

“We try our best,” he said.

Sections of the toppled eucalyptus which killed a man in his car last week on the UC Berkeley campus. Photo: Kate Rauch

News of the horrific tree fall has many questioning everything from UC Berkeley tree care to campus construction and the impact of winter storms. As with any fatal accident, people are searching for the whys and what-ifs, speculating, waiting for facts.

Hank Chapot, a retired UC gardener, a pro-union activist and an outspoken critic of UC Berkeley, left comments on Berkeleyside’s article about the incident to say he thinks the impact of cuts in staff arborist positions at the university should be examined.

Mogulof didn’t comment on staff cuts, but defended the university for contracting with “highly qualified certified arborists” to do its tree work. He said the university has one certified arborist on staff, and one open staff arborist position, which it has been trying to fill for a year. A ground worker position is also open. “These vacancies are a key driver of our need for outside contractors for arboreal work,” he added.


Others are wondering if the recent renovation work of the north end of the Greek Theatre, which includes the area where the tree was located, might have weakened the tree is some way. The project was completed last fall. Mogulof said the university would be looking at whether that was a factor, along with a host of other potential issues.

Skateboard tribute to Alex Grant, a Novato man killed last week when a tree fell on his car on the UC Berkeley campus. Photo: Kate Rauch
Flowers left at a memorial to Alex Grant near the Greek Theatre. Photo: Kate Rauch

Meanwhile, a makeshift shrine of fresh flowers, candles and a handmade structure that includes three skateboards offers a glimpse of who Grant was and a sense of the sorrowful reaction to his sudden passing. The tribute is on a retaining wall near the fallen tree.

“You will forever be in our hearts Alex. You will be missed and never forgotten. I will never forget when you showed me my 1st trick on a skateboard,” reads one message scrawled in black ink on a Baker brand skateboard deck.

“We love you always,” said another.

“I will be skating in your memory.”

And, “You are so loved,” signed “JoAnn.”

The Gayley Road incident occurred at a time the university was doing tree maintenance and removal on all of its properties, Mogulof said. The fallen eucalyptus wasn’t part of this work.

These maintenance projects included about a dozen sites around campus, including a controversial one at People’s Park.

The university had planned to remove 42 trees at the park as part of a “deferred maintenance” project but stopped amid protests, leaving five trees that had been slated to be cut down still standing.

“We hope to complete the work soon, particularly in light of the recent tragedy. I have no information as to when, exactly, that might happen,” Mogulof said.