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Tree surgeon from Marden died after being crushed by diseased Ash at National Trust's Ightham Mote

A tree surgeon was crushed to death in a tragic accident while cutting down trees at a National Trust estate.

Debbie Austin was a self-employed arborist working to fell Ash trees at Ightham Mote near Sevenoaks, when the tragedy occurred.

On December 7, the 42-year-old was felling a tree at Shingle Hill Wood that had contracted Ash dieback disease when the trunk unexpectedly collapsed on her.

Her partner of four years, Michelle Austin-Jones, said: "To finally find the love you have been searching for all of your life and then to lose her four years later is unbearable.

"Debbie truly was a beautiful soul, strong and inspirational. I will miss her for the rest of my life."

Miss Austin, from Marden, had been part of a three-person team working for Tonbridge-based Estate and Field Management Ltd, which was contracted by the National Trust to clear a number of dying Ash trees from the estate in case they toppled onto pedestrians.

Coroner James Dillon heard the standard way to fell trees was for the arborist to climb them and cut them in small sections from the top.

Debbie Austin (left) with her partner Michelle Austin-Jones
Debbie Austin (left) with her partner Michelle Austin-Jones

However, Ash trees with dieback disease are known to be brittle and so using this method was out of the question as they were too dangerous to climb.

As it was located at the top of a steep, rocky hill, the preferred modes of felling - using a cherry-picker or a telehandler to saw the trunk at a safe distance - were not suitable, the inquest heard.

Instead Miss Austin, the arborist working with her, William Jordan, and their supervisor Jerry Edwards, agreed to use the traditional method of felling manually from the bottom of the trunk using a chainsaw.

Miss Austin began, using a chainsaw to make a V-shape "face" cut through one third of the trunk on one side, and then starting the felling cut on the other side to join up with it.

What should have happened was that the tree would "hinge" over the missing wedge and then fall in that direction.

Ash trees with dieback first lose their foliage and then die
Ash trees with dieback first lose their foliage and then die

Miss Austin and Mr Jordan had realised the tree would fall across a public footpath, the Greensand Way, about seven metres away, so Mr Jordan was standing guard near the footpath to ensure no members of the public were walking along.

However, he said he suddenly heard a loud crack and saw the trunk of the Ash tree split vertically upwards, shearing off at about 25ft above Miss Austin and then toppling onto her.

He said the fall happened "in less than a second" and Miss Austin had no time to take avoiding action.

A post-mortem found she had died from haemorrhage and poly traumas.

Mr Jordan, who said that Ms Austin had been a good friend as well as a work associate, had rushed to help.

Debbie Austin was a keen runner
Debbie Austin was a keen runner

He began cutting the tree trunk to get it off her, while two walkers who arrived at the scene called the emergency services.

However, on their arrival paramedics declared Miss Austin dead.

The inquest heard from Miss Austin's GP that she had no existing illnesses or conditions that would in any way have contributed to her death.

Mr Jordan said that, when the accident occurred on December 7, the team were several days into the work on the estate which was expected to take a month.

The coroner heard the tree was challenging to fell as it was surrounded by brambles and on a slope, and that Miss Austin seemed to be struggling to find the ideal stance.

The wood is part of the Ightham Mote estate
The wood is part of the Ightham Mote estate

He said that when he examined the trunk the next day, he realised that it would have been possible for Miss Austin to cut lower down, if she had switched to a bigger chainsaw, but that saw would have been heavier and difficult to handle on the sloping terrain.

He said: "It was understandable why she was cutting at that height."

Her death was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Inspector Kevin Golden told the inquest that all the staff had the necessary qualifications and had recently attended a refresher course. They had all been supplied with the right protective equipment and he agreed the method used by the team was appropriate in the circumstances.

He concluded the cause of the accident to be the diseased condition of the tree, and said that Ash trees with dieback were "unpredictable."

'She truly was one in a million, so full of love, life and laughter. She is irreplaceable...'

He said: "Unfortunately this type of work has a very high level of accidents and fatalities."

Miss Austin was described as a highly experienced and capable arborist who loved her work and the people she worked with.

Her hobbies included running and she was in training to run The Three Peaks 500 this August for charity. That involved not only climbing the home nations' three biggest mountains, but also running between them - a distance of 500 miles.

Her partner, Michelle Austin-Jones, said: "Debbie always put 100% into everything she did.

"She truly was one in a million, so full of love, life and laughter. She is irreplaceable. The world is a much darker place without her. She will be missed terribly by all her family and friends."

At the inquest, at the Shepway Centre in Maidstone, a jury of five men and five women reached a conclusion of accidental death.

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