Sunday, June 27, 2010

In Central Park, the Sky Really Is Falling

Yesterday afternoon, a branch fell off a tree just outside the seal lion exhibit at the Central Park Zoo in New York.  It was not windy or raining, and no one really knows why it fell.  About thirty feet below, Gianna Ricciutti, aged six months, was having her picture taken by her father, Mike, while being held by her mother, Karla Del Gallo. It was part of a visit from their home in New Jersey.  The branch hit Gianna and her mother, leaving Gianna dead and Karla in critical condition.

This is the sort of story that makes you gasp and exclaim how awful it is.  The sheer randomness of this event, coupled with the death of a tiny child, seems especially horrible.  As we start to think about it, we wonder why it doesn't happen more often.  After all, parks are full of tall trees, and branches fall off trees, so it was just a matter of time, we suppose, before this happened. And if it happened once, it can happen again.

If that's how we feel, imagine what it would be like to be just outside sea lion exhibit at the Central Park Zoo and suddenly hear a loud noise and see a woman and her baby crushed by a falling tree limb.  Gianna's father witnessed his baby's death and his wife's serious injury, completely powerless to stop it.  There were certainly others, perhaps not as focused on that particular pair, who saw the accident or arrived shortly thereafter. 

A security guard at the scene was interviewed by the New York Times.  The Times reports his experience as,

he heard a loud crack, like a thunderclap, and saw the branch plummet. After the mother fell, members of her family shrieked, the guard said, and her husband began screaming and jumping around. “He was going crazy,” the guard said.
The phrase "going crazy" really bothers me in this context.  First of all, what, exactly, is our expectation for rational behavior when you have just seen two of the most important people in your life critically injured in a freak accident?  How do we expect this man to act under the circumstances?  Is screaming and jumping around really that odd?

The second problem I have with this description is that the number one thing I talk to people who have been traumatized about is the sense they have that they are going crazy.  I would say that at least 80% of what I do is assure people that there reactions are typical and understandable.  They are not crazy, the situation is.  Behavior and reactions that would be totally bizarre on a regular day or in reaction to regular stress make total sense when the world has turned upside down.

At the same time, I can't blame the guard too much.  He just witnessed something awful as well, and frankly I wish the press wasn't so eager to get quotes from people in situations like this.  I doubt very much that the security guard actually thinks Mike Ricciutti's reaction was so out of whack.  He was describing the scene, and he used a turn of phrase that was unfortunate.  Under the circumstances, I can more than forgive him.

I really hope everyone who was in that part of the park yesterday gets some support.  It's going to be hard to walk under trees for a while, not because trees really are, statistically, all that dangerous, but because they seem that way.  I also hope all of those people have a chance to talk to each other at some point.  They need to know they aren't crazy, that this really was awful, and that the others around them didn't think their reaction was nuts.  It's easy, at moments like this, to feel like you're the only one reacting the way you are.  It might help them to know that others are gasping and exclaiming how awful it is, too.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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