First came a loud crack. Then, a 75-foot pine tree came tumbling down Tuesday evening, crashing on a group of children and summer camp counselors in front of a popular Pasadena children's museum in the Arroyo Seco, witnesses said.
"The kids were screaming, and they were running," said Greg Prodigalidad, a contractor in Pasadena who was sitting on a bench nearby when he heard the towering tree snap and uproot.
"Once I saw the tree fall, I started running. Me and a bunch of people — we were just moving all the branches away and getting all the kids out."
Parents, camp counselors and staff at the Kidspace Children's Museum, which operates the summer camp, swarmed to scoop the children from under the toppled tree.
"It was horrifying," said Lee Ann Cornell, who was outside the museum with her son. Even the kitchen staff at the museum, she said, ran out to rescue the kids before firefighters and police arrived.
Eight children were injured, and two were hospitalized in critical condition, said Lisa Derderian, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Fire Department. All of the injured children were enrolled in the museum's summer camp, which this week has 33 campers ages of 5 to 9, said Tim Scheidler, a marketing manager for the museum. None of the counselors was injured, he said.
The pine tree sits in front of the museum's entrance but is located within the boundaries of Brookside Park, a 62-acre public park in the Arroyo Seco next to the Rose Bowl.
What caused the tree to fall is under investigation, city officials said. An independent arborist was scheduled to inspect the tree and its root system Wednesday, City Manager Michael Beck said. An initial examination did not reveal any signs of disease, he said.
Sylva Blackstone, an arborist and consultant in Highland Park, said there were several possible causes including root disease, fungus, wind and damage to the tree from the drought.
"It's hard to tell," said Blackstone, as she stood about 20 feet from the fallen pine Tuesday night. City officials cordoned off the tree and were not allowing bystanders to get close.
Whether the drought played a role was unclear. Beck, the city manager, said the area around the museum and park was not subject to the same water conservation measures as other parts of the city, where once-green medians have turned brown.
"Because it is used as a city park and is near to Kidspace, it is watered regularly," said Beck, gesturing to the meadow where the campers had been waiting for their parents to pick them up. "As you can see, it is green."
The drought has been blamed for a die-off among trees along boulevards and in parks and backyards throughout Southern California. As many as 14,000 trees in Los Angeles parks — about 4% of the total — may have died during the last year of drought, according to a city parks department survey earlier this year. In a normal year, the toll would be less than 1%.
Scientists say the death of so many trees could drive up temperatures, disrupt animal habitats and impede water retention. They expect even more trees to wither as Californians attempt to comply with new conservation rules.
Pasadena — a city renowned for its lush canopy — has more than 40,000 trees, said city spokesman William Boyer. The fallen pine, like other trees in the park, was maintained by the city.
"We love our trees, we take care of our trees," Boyer said.
In 2011, a windstorm downed trees across the San Gabriel Valley and hit Pasadena hard, as falling limbs knocked out power lines and crushed cars. About 2,000 trees had to be removed, according to a city report.
Prodigalidad, who helped rescue the kids, said if another type of tree had fallen — say an oak or a sycamore — the disaster could have been worse.
"I'm glad it was a pine tree; it gave warning," he said, allowing children to scatter. "You hear it crack before it falls."