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Arborist offers advice after hammock tragedy

Monday - 5/6/2013, 1:34pm  ET

WASHINGTON - A 5-year-old boy is in critical but stable condition and his grandmother remains seriously injured after a rotting tree fell on them while lounging in a backyard hammock in Loudoun County on Saturday.

The tree was old and rotted from termites and ants, according to a spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff's office.

Certified Arborist Jack Goehring suggests homeowners hire a professional to check the strength and integrity of trees before attaching anything weight-bearing.

"You'd walk around the tree, there might be a cavity, which is a hole, that can indicate a tree is hollow," says Goehring, who was the arborist for the White House, National Trust for the Historic Preservation and the National Security Agency.

To further test whether the tree is hollow, "Take a wooden mallet to tap it -- do a percussion test -- that would give you a lot of indication," says Goehring.

A healthy tree's leaves will generally be similar size, density and color from the top of the tree to the bottom.

"If you see them smaller and lighter at the top, that's the beginning of decline," says Goehring.

Trees infested with insects often have tell-tale wood shavings, similar to sawdust, at the base of the tree.

Goehring says you can test whether a tree trunk is hollow by inserting a single, quarter-inch hole with an electric drill.

"You can tell by pressure whether it's hollow," says Goehring. "If all of a sudden it goes in quickly, it would tell you that would be hollow."

Goehring would avoid attaching a hammock to a tree with a severe lean.

"Once the tree is past its fulcrum, there's no question which way it's going to fall," says Goehring.

Even with as much testing and screening as possible, beautiful trees always pose a potential safety risk.

"You must remember you're dealing with living cells. There's acts of God, and Mother Nature -- they write the rules," Goehring says.

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