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Still no answers in toppling of tree that crushed driver in Costa Mesa

September 16, 2011 |  8:29 pm

Fallen tree in Costa Mesa

Authorities were still looking for answers Friday after a 10-ton tree toppled onto a car at a stoplight the day before, killing the driver.

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

The quake that hit about 2:55 a.m. Thursday may have played a role, though there could have been other contributing factors, UC Irvine seismologist Lisa Grant Ludwig said. Hundreds of people in Costa Mesa reported feeling the temblor.

That's a "good indication right there that that location was shaken relatively strongly," Ludwig said. "It’s possible."

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

Haeyoon Miller, 29, was crushed by the trunk of the 50-foot tree as she waited at a light at 17th Street and Irvine Avenue on Thursday afternoon. The Orange County coroner's officer said the cause of death was accidental blunt-force trauma.

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

Eucalyptus trees are known for shedding bark and branches but are not known to topple, said Laura Lyons, nursery manager at the UC Irvine arboretum.

Residents said a tree in the same median fell about a year ago, but no one was injured.

On Friday, flowers were tied with yellow ribbons to another eucalyptus near the spot where Miller died.

Potted plants filled the hole left by the tree, many with notes from residents.

Melissa Nesheim, an Orange Coast College student who lives about three blocks away, dropped off flowers.

"I know what it’s like to lose someone to an unfortunate accident," Nesheim said.

Miller was on her lunch break from her job as an executive assistant at a mortgage firm, DLJ Financial in Newport Beach, according to friends. She immigrated to the United States from South Korea as a 10-year-old violin prodigy. She attended the Juilliard School in New York and went on to perform at Carnegie Hall, according to George Osorio, 58, her boyfriend of five years.

She also attended San Clemente High School and USC, said Osorio, who shared a home with Miller in Tustin.

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

"She had a reserved elegance,” said Casey Turner, 38, who worked with Miller for seven years. "Nothing was ever above her. She was always calm, always collected.... She was amazing. She was everything to everybody. One of the most selfless people I’ve ever known."


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Photo: Firefighters on Thursday worked to lift the trunk of a eucalyptus tree off Haeyoon Miller's car. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times