For Zachary and his mother, former Brentwood resident Michelle Madrid, there was no reason to believe this trip would be anything but a wonderful family reunion.
On July 25 at 4:30 a.m., following a rumbling that his aunt would later compare to “a plane crash or a bomb,” a 47-foot tanoak tree toppled onto the campsite, onto Zachary’s tent, bounced off the sleeping 12-year-old and landing a few feet away.
“It crashed from one end of the campsite to the other,” said Helene Engberg, a Brentwood resident and Zachary’s aunt. “Zachary was in the tent with my other nephew Alex and we pulled Alex out first and he was fine. But when we got to Zachary, we thought he was still asleep because he was disoriented – we didn’t’ realize at first that he was injured.”
The tree had struck Zachary’s pelvic area, causing internal bleeding and grievous injuries, the extent of which are still not known.
“It was dark out and we couldn’t see very well,” said Engberg. “But when I put my hand down, I felt liquid; it wasn’t until later that I realized it had been blood.”
Zachary was rushed to Stanford Hospital, where a few days later doctors were forced to amputate Zachary’s right leg at the pelvic bone. His left leg and pelvis are broken and he remains in traction. Zachary has also sustained internal bleeding, has undergone a colonoscopy and is hooked up to dialysis. Doctors are unsure if either of those two items will be permanent. Zachary is expected to undergo as many as 50 surgeries over the next few months, one every few days or so, to clean and sanitize the wound area until a graft can be installed.
“The biggest fear right now is infection, although doctors say it is going to happen,” said Engberg. “It’s just a matter of when … We don’t know the full extent of his injuries; we don’t know for sure if there is spinal injury or not. The doctors have said that if he had been an adult he wouldn’t have made it. Zachary died many times that day. It has been a horror.”
David Holland, assistant manager for San Mateo County, said in his 30-plus years with the U.S. Forest Service, such occurrences are rare. “These are not events that happen with any frequency,” said Holland. “And what’s occurred is tragic. I have seven children of my own and our thoughts and prayers are with the family.”
Holland confirmed that an examination of the tanoak revealed some rot in the bottom section of the tree. He added that the county conducts regular checks on the external condition of trees in and around the campsites.
“We check for things such as dead branches, is the tree leaning or can you see an obvious rot column in the tree?” said Holland.
Miraculously, Zachary – who was born in Antioch and has strong ties to East County – remains in stable but critical condition. His mother, Michelle, originally from Discovery Bay, has remained at his side and is grateful for the outpouring of support and love from family and friends. A bright spot this week, said Engberg, was when Zachary responded to the popular Angry Birds game on her iPad.
“He had a reaction to that – he loves Angry Birds,” said Engberg, who added that her nephew is an enthusiastic golfer and runner. “So we were happy to see that. He’s a very strong boy.”
An account to help with the family’s medical expenses has been set up at Bank of America: the Zach Rowe Fund, account number 164102211549. Donations can be made at any Bank of America branch.