Collapse of 30-metre tree on Old Town Square raises questions over safety

Old Town Square, photo: CTK

It should have been a relaxing pre-Christmas Saturday spent seeing the sights and sounds of Prague's Old Town Square, hosting its traditional Christmas market. But for some it almost ended in tragedy. Tourists and local visitors were shocked at around 11 am, when a sudden gust of 100 kilometre winds hit the pride of the square, a 30-metre tall Christmas tree, snapping it at its base and sending it crashing to the ground.

Old Town Square, photo: CTK
A witness on the square spoke with Czech Radio:

"Luckily there weren't that many people on the square when it happened. When the tree snapped, most managed to get out of the way, and most were pretty much in control. Some ran to see if anybody had been hurt, if anybody was lying there or not. Ambulances got here within three minutes."

And, with good reason: four people, including a 6-year-old child, were unable to sidestep the falling giant. Though three ultimately escaped with only minor injuries, a fourth, a 54-year-old visitor from Britain, suffered fractures to both femurs and the spine. He underwent a six-hour-operation to stabilise his condition and will remain in hospital for the next two weeks. Not a very nice way to spend the holidays, but under the circumstances lucky nevertheless.

Old Town Square, photo: CTK
The fall of the Old Town Square's Christmas tree has raised questions about safety that have been addressed before: four years ago two trees fell in Prague, though no one was injured. And, last winter one man was killed after high winds snapped another tree in the Bruntal region in east Moravia. Since Saturday's accident towns around the Czech Republic have reassessed the situation, having the stability of their "show trees" rechecked by experts to ensure such accidents do not happen again. Trees are stabilised, for example, by sinking them further into the ground.

Still, experts say, unforeseen winds or blizzards can always cause unexpected damage, and it is important cities, like Prague, not compete to have the tallest specimen anymore. The Christmas tree that will now go up on the Old Town Square will be five metres shorter, presumably enough of a difference that the Old Town Square will be safe enough now for visitors to concentrate on the coming winter holidays without having to worry the tree could come down again.