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Four girls die in school van crushed by tree

March 6, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ A 60-foot maple toppled in the wind and fell on a van carrying children and adults to minister-congressman Floyd Flake’s church school Thursday, crushing four girls to death.

The girls _ two of them sisters _ were 10 to 12 years old. The driver, her husband, and four other children suffered minor injuries.

``I’ve known these kids since they were babies,″ Flake, his eyes red and his voice breaking, said at the hospital where the survivors were taken.

With the wind gusting to 50 mph, the van was heading for the Allen Christian School in the Queens neighborhood of St. Albans. The school is affiliated with the Allen AME Church, a congregation of 8,000 people headed by Flake, a New York Democrat.

The thunderous boom of the falling silver maple, which was 4 feet around, brought neighbors running from their homes along a quiet tree-lined block.

``Get the babies out! Get the babies out!″ the driver cried as she emerged bruised and shaken from the wreck.

The driver’s husband began ``crying and praying, `Oh, God help us, have mercy!‴ said Dawnette Davis, who lives on the block and ran to help.

The injured children, a boy and three girls _ dressed in their school uniforms of yellow blouses and black skirts _ made it out of the wreckage.

Workers had to saw the tree away and pry open the van’s roof to reach the four other girls. They were pronounced them dead in their seats.

They were ``happy, beautiful spirits from caring families,″ said Linda Morant, director of the school, which has 480 pupils in preschool through eighth grade.

The 70-year-old city-owned tree was torn out by the roots. Parks Commissioner Henry Stern said that the tree was budding but that there was evidence of root rot and that some roots may have been broken when the sidewalk was repaired last summer.

Thursday’s wind blew down more than 100 trees in parks and on sidewalks in New York City.

After the accident, black bunting hung over the main door of the school about a mile away. Children cried, sang hymns and prayed during a service in the lunchroom.

The accident, the Rev. Charles L. Norris said, was a ``test of their faith.″ They were ``thanking God that there was just four the Lord had taken from us. Jesus helped those who walked away; Jesus took those who he wanted to be with him.″

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