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Authorities look for answers after tree crushes motorist

Public safety officials and seismic and horticultural experts try to determine why a eucalyptus tree toppled onto a car waiting at a stoplight in Costa Mesa, killing the driver.

September 17, 2011|By Lauren Williams, Los Angeles Times
  • Firefighters lift the trunk of a eucalyptus tree that fell and crushed a Hyundai Accent in Costa Mesa killing the driver, Haeyoon Miller.
Firefighters lift the trunk of a eucalyptus tree that fell and crushed a… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Authorities were still looking for answers on Friday, one day after a 10-ton tree toppled onto a car waiting at a stoplight, crushing the driver.

Haeyoon Miller, 29, was killed when the trunk of the 50-foot eucalyptus tree slammed into the roof of her Hyundai Accent as she waited at 17th Street and Irvine Avenue on Thursday afternoon. The Orange County coroner's officer listed the cause of death as accidental blunt-force trauma.

Public safety officials and seismic and horticultural experts were investigating the accident but had only theories to work with, from moist soil to trimmed roots to this week's magnitude 3.5 earthquake in Newport Beach.

UC Irvine seismologist Lisa Grant Ludwig said the quake, which hit about 2:56 a.m. Thursday and was centered off Newport Beach, may have played a role, though there could have been other contributing factors.

Hundreds of people in Costa Mesa reported feeling the temblor, she said. That's a "good indication right there that that location was shaken relatively strongly," Ludwig said. "It's possible."

But soil conditions, the health of the tree and whether the ground was wet or slanted are all possible factors in the collapse of the blue gum eucalyptus, she said.

Newport Beach, which has a contract with Costa Mesa to maintain the trees near the cities' shared borders, said in a statement that the trees on the median are inspected every six months and were last pruned in April, and that the eucalyptus that fell showed no signs of illness.

Eucalyptus trees are known to shed bark and branches but not to topple, said Laura Lyons, nursery manager at the UC Irvine arboretum. Residents said that a tree along the same median fell about a year ago, although no one was injured.

On Friday, flowers were tied with yellow ribbons to a eucalyptus near where Miller died. Potted plants, filled with condolences from residents, covered the hole left by the fallen tree.

Miller, who lived in Tustin, was on her lunch break from her job as an executive assistant at DLJ Financial, a mortgage firm in Newport Beach, according to friends.

Her boyfriend of five years, George Osorio, said Miller immigrated to the United States from South Korea as a 10-year-old violin prodigy and attended the Juilliard School in New York. She also attended San Clemente High School and USC.

"I always referred to Haeyoon as a jack-of-all-trades," said co-worker Glenn Toher. "She was kind of like Morgan Freeman in '[The] Shawshank Redemption.' She knew how to do everything."

Another co-worker, Casey Turner, remembered Miller for her calm nature.

"She had a reserved elegance," Turner said. "Nothing was ever above her. ... One of the most selfless people I've ever known."

lauren.williams@latimes.com

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