PALM TREE TOPPLES ONTO HOTEL GUESTS

This giant queen palm fell on two tourists while they were poolside at a resort on Jan. 14. JEFF VANDERMEER via Facebook

A giant palm tree crashed down on tourists enjoying drinks poolside at a Key West hotel on Jan. 14., leaving a Massachusetts man with a broken leg and his wife bleeding from her forehead.

Neal Michael Dougherty, 70, and Cheryl Rebecca Dougherty, 73, who were visiting from Hudson, Massachusetts, were taken to Lower Keys Medical Center and then to HCA Florida Kendall Hospital for further treatment, according to the Key West police report. 

The bizarre incident immediately turned into an emergency, with guests pitching in to free the man pinned beneath the queen palm tree – which stood nearly three stories high – that had toppled onto him at the Marquesa Hotel, 600 Fleming St. 

The palm appeared to have been rotting near its base, police said.

At about 5:30 p.m. that Sunday evening, police were called to the hotel. They found Key West Fire/Rescue assisting the two injured people, along with the palm tree resting on the concrete pool deck, broken glass and broken chairs. 

A guest said he was sitting at a table with his wife and the Doughertys when he heard a cracking sound and saw the palm tree starting to fall. He pulled his wife away and “yelled for Neal and Cheryl to move out of the way,” police said.

But there wasn’t enough time. The tree struck the table and landed on Neal’s legs. 

Guests who were inside their rooms when the tree fell said they heard a loud crash. At the pool area, they saw a man stuck underneath the tree and his wife lying beside him bleeding from her head. 

Later at the Lower Keys Medical Center’s emergency room, Neal Dougherty told police the umbrella at their table was open and he was unable to see the tree falling.

Cheryl Dougherty was struck across the forehead by a glass shard, police said. 

The palm tree “appeared to have rotted out from the inside,” Officer Scott Ham wrote in the report. 

“There were few roots at the base and the majority of the base appeared to be hollow,” he wrote. “There were spiderwebs attached from the fence and other foliage around the backside of the tree, ruling out any foul play of the tree being pushed over.”

One Marquesa guest who jumped in to help the couple was Rebecca Renner, one of many acclaimed authors in town for the Key West Literary Seminar. This year’s theme was “Florida: The State We’re In,” with writers focusing on all aspects of the state, including the environment. 

“Terrible accident yesterday in Key West with huge palm tree falling on and injuring two people,” author Jeff VanderMeer wrote the night of the incident on his Facebook page, where he posted a photo of the downed palm tree. 
“Communal effort to lift tree off the husband’s broken legs,” VanderMeer wrote. “Wanted to say the writer Rebecca Renner held a towel to the head wound of the woman and comforted her and was just generally wonderful helping and knowing what to do.”

Gwen Filosa is The Keys Weekly’s Digital Editor, and has covered Key West news, culture and assorted oddities since she moved to the island in 2011. She was previously a reporter for the Miami Herald and WLRN public radio. Before moving to the Keys, Gwen was in New Orleans for a decade, covering criminal courts for The Times-Picayune. In 2006, the paper’s staff won the Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news and the Public Service Medal for their coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She remains a devout Saints fan. She has a side hustle as a standup comedian, and has been a regular at Comedy Key West since 2017. She is also an acclaimed dogsitter, professional Bingo caller and a dedicated Wilco fan.