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Huge oak tree crashes through ceiling as family sleeps in Chicopee Village
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A tree crashed through the ceiling of John Wheeler's home Saturday night, Nov. 18, 2017, as a storm blew through the Chicopee Village area. Chicopee residents have asked the county to remove dead trees in the neighborhood since they are growing between the road and sidewalk, but very few have been removed. The tree that fell on Wheeler's home wasn’t dead or dying, he said. - photo by David Barnes

John Wheeler thought of his 14-year-old son in the next bedroom and of his time at war as his living room ceiling crashed into his home.

Wheeler, 56, and his fiancee, Melinda Moore, 54, were asleep when a large oak tree crashed through the roof of their Chicopee Village home Saturday night during the storm that hit Northeast Georgia. Wheeler’s son, Carl Wheeler, 14, was asleep in the next bedroom.

“I’m a veteran of the first Gulf War and that’s exactly what — having experienced a combat situation, it was like incoming (fire),” said Wheeler, who fought in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had that sense.”

The tree fell on the front side of the home and destroyed the roof over the living room, but left everyone in the home, including their pet parrot in the living room, unhurt.

“It was like an explosion,” Moore said, adding she was thankful to be alive. “The loudest bang, shake, just the scariest thing I’ve ever been through.”

Their living room was covered in dust, plaster and other bits of ceiling and roof.

“The ceiling is now resting on an old but strong desk,” Wheeler said. “... It’s at an angle. The ceiling fan and light are about waist high.”

The oak tree fell from its spot on public property between the sidewalk and the road after 10 p.m. Saturday, according to Gainesville Fire Department spokesman Keith Smith. He said high winds in the area may have contributed to the tree falling.

The tree tore down power lines but didn’t cut power to the home, Wheeler said. Georgia Power responded Saturday and cleared downed lines before firefighters entered the house.

The sounds of falling trees and crushed roofs are becoming familiar in the village, where 15 large trees on public property have fallen this year. Many of those fell during Tropical Storm Irma in early September.

Wheeler’s house on J Avenue is the fifth to be damaged by a falling tree in fewer than three months, according to Allison Bailey, head of the Association of Chicopee Village Residents.

Bailey maintains a detailed inventory of all trees in public rights of way in the village. In May, there were 331 trees along the area’s roads, most of them oaks and dogwoods.

At least 40 of them are dead and still standing or stumps, and many more are in poor condition. They and many of the remaining living trees have shattered concrete sidewalks and damaged roads throughout the village.

The tree that fell Saturday pulled up sections of sidewalk and curb when it toppled. The rootwad, splayed across the remaining sidewalk, is about 20 feet wide.

Moore said she’s been worried about the tree in front of the home since Irma hit, as a tree of similar size fell across the street from their home during the storm. They and others in the village lost power for a week.

“When that happened, we got out of the house,” Moore said. “We were afraid to stay there during the hurricane because we thought our tree was going to fall, and it stood — until Saturday night.”

Bailey has been sounding the alarm about dangerous trees in the rights of way for the past year.

She approached the Hall County Board of Commissioners in May looking for a solution to a problem that has been growing for decades.

Chicopee was once a mill town operated by Johnson & Johnson. The lots were sold to the general public in 1956, and the public property turned over to the county.

Since then, the area has deteriorated. Almost half of the homes are now rented out and many are in poor condition. It has some of the lowest property values in the county, but the active members of the association are trying to turn the fortunes of the village around.

Now, Warden Walt Davis with the Hall County Correctional Institute is drafting a five-year plan to improve and repair the public property in Chicopee Village. Davis manages much of the county’s street maintenance work.

“We’ve assessed that there’s about 500 feet of sidewalk that really needs to be replaced,” Davis told The Times in May. “It’s crumbled. It’s broken, busted up because of those old trees.”

Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe represents Chicopee Village in his district. He said Monday that he understands the fear and frustration of living near dangerous trees, but with thousands of trees in rights of way around the county there’s only room in the budget for so much work each year.

“I live in Gainesville, I’ve got several huge trees around my house and actually had a neighbor’s tree fall during Irma and hit my house,” Stowe said, adding he understands how the situation can “terrify” someone.

The county will investigate a dead or dying tree for removal, but “we don’t make a practice of going down and taking out live, healthy trees,” he added.

It wouldn’t have made much difference in Wheeler’s case. He said the tree that fell on his home was neither dead nor dying.

“It’s a relatively healthy tree, but it’s dangerous,” Wheeler said. “It’s not just putting property at risk — it’s putting lives at risk.”

Stowe noted that Davis has spent the past couple of months working on the plan to improve the rights of way in Chicopee Village.

In the meantime, Wheeler, Moore and other residents of the village remain nervous about the aging trees.

“That has been and remains the biggest safety concern in that village. It’s a beautiful community and a wonderful community to live in, but several of the neighbors have talked to the commissioner and other people have voiced concern (about the trees),” Wheeler said. “I don’t think they’re being ignored, but I don’t think they’re being acted upon. I can tell you firsthand, someone is going to ...”

“To die,” Moore interjected.

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A tree crashed through the ceiling of John Wheeler's living room Saturday night, Nov. 18, 2017, as a storm blew through the Chicopee Village area. Below is the stump of another dead tree that fell during Tropical Storm Irma. Residents have asked the county to remove dead trees since they are growing between the road and sidewalk, but very few have been removed. The tree that fell on Wheeler's home wasn’t dead or dying, he said. - photo by David Barnes