Tree blocks highway

Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

It could have been worse

A young couple from Ohio had their cross-country road trip cut short on Saturday when a large tree that fell onto Highway 199 smashed their car and blocked all traffic for nearly an hour.

"We were just listening to the radio, then I heard the crash and felt myself lunge forward," said Paige Fruechtnicht, who was traveling through Del Norte County with Greg Ponchak, both of Columbus, Ohio. "We didn't know what had happened until we got out of the car and saw the tree behind us."

A Douglas-fir tree nearly 3 feet in diameter fell onto the roadway, narrowly missing the small, red Hyundai sedan with Ohio plates. A smaller branch from the tree dented the car's roof up to 18 inches in some places and shattered both the front and rear windshields.

"We've been car camping and sleeping in the car, so ... not anymore," Ponchak said.

Witnesses of the tree-fall said the Ohio couple was lucky to escape without a scratch. Just a fraction of a second earlier, and the bulk of the large tree could have certainly stopped the car in its tracks.

"Everyone just got lucky - that's what happened; thank God no one got hurt," said Louie Dillard, who witnessed the crash. "I thought the (Hyundai) was under that tree because I couldn't see it."

Cathy Garten was just behind the red Hyundai when the tree started to fall.

"My sister was taking a drink of water, and she looked up and said, 'The tree is coming down!'" Garten recalled. "I slammed on my brakes just in time for the tree to hit the ground and the smoke and dust to come on us from all of it."

After ensuring that the couple in the smashed car was OK, trapped motorists quickly put together a community effort to get the road cleared, tossing aside smaller wood debris until authorities arrived.

George Pettit, who serves on the Del Norte Search and Rescue team, overheard the incident on his home scanner in Hiouchi and quickly drove up to the scene, less than a mile west of the Hardscrabble Creek bridge, with his chain saw in tow to get the tree cleared.

"I'm just doing my part to help out," Pettit said.

Pettit's small saw wasn't enough for the massive Doug-fir, but four firefighters from the Smith River Interagency Hotshot Crew made quick work of cutting the logs and rolling the pieces to the side of the road with the help of good Samaritans.

A video of the largest log being rolled into the Smith River can be seen on the Triplicate's Facebook page.

Reach Adam Spencer ataspencer@triplicate.com .

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The Del Norte Triplicate
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