AN experienced tree surgeon who fell to his death from one of the Forest’s tallest trees may have suffered a lapse of concentration after consuming alcohol and cocaine, an inquest heard.
David Brown (46), from Bournemouth, had gone to Rhinefield Ornamental Drive on 7th July with friend Lawrence Warner, who was also an experienced climber and tree surgeon.
The inquest heard how the large redwood tree the two scaled was one of a pair known locally as ‘the twins” or “the sisters”, and was estimated to be around 80 to 100-metres tall.
The friends had begun climbing at 8.10pm, reaching the top at 9.20pm. Lawrence told the inquest: “We didn’t think we were going to make it to the top before sunset, but we did. We stayed up there for a bit and as time was getting on, I said to Dave we should probably head down.” He added that during their time at the top of the tree, David drank some cider and “sniffed something”, which he later learned was cocaine.
Explaining what happened next, Mr Warner told the inquest that due to the height of the tree neither had a rope long enough, so during their descent, which began at 10.30pm, they both needed to “re-anchor”.
He added: “I’d come as far as I could on my rope and then I had to re-tie it. Dave was a bit above me and said he would do the same. He went down a bit more and I thought, ‘he’s done that a bit quick’. Then he just started falling.”
Asked about how David had seemed that day, Lawrence said: “He seemed absolutely fine, he was on top of the world. We were just enjoying being up there.”
Pathologist Dr Eleanor Jaynes said Mr Brown had suffered incredible and significant trauma to several of his major organs. Toxicology results showed he was approximately 1.6 times the drink-drive limit and had a recreational amount of cocaine in his system.
Det. Cons. Gurjeet Kalirai told the inquest the emergency services had been contacted by Lawrence Warner, who said David had fallen approximately 100ft. Paramedics arrived but he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service also attended and assisted Mr Warner in climbing the remaining distance safely to the ground. Firefighter Andrew McShane, who is also part of the service’s specialist rope rescue team, told the inquest he was called to assist Mr Warner, who was shocked but unhurt.
He said he examined Mr Brown’s equipment, which was a standard arborist’s kit, and had expected to see a knot at the end of his line to prevent it slipping through a safety device known as a zig-zag, which helps control the climb.
He added: “It is possible that as David descended, he may have come to a point that there was no knot in his rope. Because there was no knot in his rope, the rope slipped.
“A climber could forget or omit to tie a knot, but as an inherent safety device, it should be done every time. The zig-zag is an excellent piece of kit if used respectfully. It would be easy to descend off the line if you’re not looking at the end.”
The inquest also heard Mr Brown, who was born in New Zealand, was going through a divorce from his wife Elizabeth. They met in New Zealand in 2005 while she was on holiday, and he moved to the UK with her and continued working as a tree surgeon. However, they split in 2017.
Elizabeth told the court that David was a very experienced climber. She said: “He was an excellent climber. He did all the dead trees and the dirty work – all the risky jobs that others wouldn’t do. He was amazing.”
However, things turned bad when his mother passed away last year, she said, and he was given a large inheritance. Elizabeth said he spent it on “drink, drugs and people who suddenly became long-lost friends”. She explained the pair had split up a few years previously due to David having a drug problem, but he assured her he would never use again.
She told the inquest: “He was to everybody the happiest, most go-lucky man. But to his family, sadly he was quite depressed, which wasn’t helped by the drink and drugs. He started taking huge amounts of drugs and withdrawing large sums of money and giving it to almost strangers. He was completely out of control.”
David was left unable to work after he stepped out into the path of an oncoming motorbike while out drinking and taking drugs, she explained, but said of his previous employment: “He never had a serious accident before. He’d been in some very serious positions, but he always managed to get out of those.”
Assistant coroner Samantha Marsh ruled Mr Brown’s death was an accident and said: “We don’t know exactly what caused the fall, whether he stood on a dead branch or he failed to re-anchor.
“On the balance of probabilities, the effect of drugs and alcohol affected David’s judgement and potential reaction time. His attitude and perception may have meant he failed to put the knot in his rope.
“I am satisfied there was no foul play and no problems with his equipment. Neither was there any concern regarding his mood or intentions. It sadly happened by chance and was completely unintentional.”