On the Merritt Parkway, stately trees line the roadside, shield drivers' eyes from the sun and offer a scenic alternative to truck-choked Interstate 95. But the trees on the historic road linking New York City and New England are not just pretty — they're also perilous.
Trees have fallen onto cars three times in recent weeks, including one whipped by a storm June 23 onto a livery sedan driven by 74-year-old Norman Gamache, of Westport, Mass., killing him and injuring his two passengers.
"Every time this happens, I think most any of us who travel the Merritt does so holding our breath and looking upward," said Gordon Joseloff, first selectman in Westport, Conn., where many trees have toppled onto the parkway in recent years.
For Gamache's nephew, Bob Gendron, the question is: "What happened was one of those freaky, freaky things, I know, but why don't they just cut back the trees?"
Along the Merritt, built in the 1930s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its landscaping, topography and variety of ornate overpass bridges, it's not that simple. Transportation officials can't unilaterally cut all trees close to the road because of historic protections.
It's a conversation that has happened before. A couple from Pelham, N.Y., died and their two young sons were trapped in the family's crushed car by a fallen pine tree in 2007, not far from where a large maple fell a month earlier and slightly injured another driver.
Connecticut officials reviewed potential dangers at the time and cut many questionable trees, and they said recently that their tree inspection, maintenance and removal process remains as active as ever despite budget constraints.
Still, the latest batch of falling trees and limbs has raised questions about whether more can be done to protect those who use the 37.5-mile parkway, which many car drivers favor because its low bridges make it off limits to tractor-trailers and other large commercial vehicles.
The parkway, whose first section opened in 1934, connects the Wilbur Cross Parkway in southern Connecticut to the Hutchinson River Parkway at the New York border. Towering trees border it and, in many spots, also line its narrow median. That leaves potential for trees to topple into the road during storms or even fair weather if they're unhealthy.
As part of its Merritt maintenance work, the Connecticut Department of Transportation has workers regularly check for trees that show rot or other problems that could make them vulnerable, department spokesman Kevin Nursick said.
But the trees that recently killed Gamache and injured people in two other vehicles were healthy and gave no indication of problems, so the Transportation Department had no way of knowing they might fall, Nursick said.
"If these were dead, dying or decayed trees, I'd say we need to do better work, but these were trees that were overtly healthy," Nursick said. "That's the conundrum: How do we identify a healthy tree that could potentially become compromised during a weather event? I think that's virtually impossible."
The parkway's historic designation prevents widespread tree removal except in emergencies. And unlike on most limited-access highways, crews cannot unilaterally cut all trees within a certain distance of the road — usually, about 30 feet — because of the Merritt's historic protections.
The problem is exacerbated by the growing amount of traffic on the Merritt Parkway in recent decades. In 2009, the most recent figure available, it carried more than 80,000 vehicles at its busiest point, where it transforms into the Wilbur Cross.
It's a popular alternative to nearby I-95 because trucks can't use it, so chances are good that if a tree falls, a small vehicle will be below it.
New York officials experienced the problem in 2004, when a Yonkers couple was killed by a 50-foot ash tree that smashed into their car on a sunny day, for no obvious reason, on the Saw Mill River Parkway in Westchester. Their infant daughter was strapped into a car seat in the back of the vehicle and survived.
The problem of trees falling into roadways isn't limited to parkways in general or the Merritt in particular, though. In fact, the same day Gamache was killed in Stamford, a 55-year-old Guilford man was critically injured when a tree fell on his truck on U.S. 1 in Madison, about 60 miles away. He died the next day.
Motorists have also died in recent weeks in Georgia, Indiana, Virginia and California. Storms felled most of those trees.
That's little comfort to the family of Gamache, who enjoyed long road trips, drove a big rig for decades and had a gregarious nature that made him the perfect fit to drive sedans for his nephew's limousine company.
"My uncle was a great driver," Gendron said. "The man never had a speeding ticket and drove tractor-trailers all of his life, in all kinds of conditions and weather."