Sunday, February 5, 2012


Mother Nature claimed one of her oldest living specimens yesterday in a freak fire that destroyed a 3,500-year-old bald cypress tree towering over central Florida.

Known as “The Senator,” or simply “The Big Tree,” the hollowed-out majestic timber, standing at 118 feet tall, ignited before dawn. Firefighters watched helplessly as the oldest tree east of the Mississippi — and the fifth oldest in the world — blazed and then collapsed in a heap of flaming embers.

Seminole County investigators first pronounced the Big Tree Park fire suspicious. But as the day wore on, state arson inspectors determined the inferno was not deliberately set but rather was caused by a curious confluence of natural events described as being either a weeks- old lightning strike that smoldered until combustion occured, or friction caused by buffeting winds that ignited a spark and erupted in flames.

“I’m flabbergasted myself,” Seminole County Fire Rescue spokesman Steve Wright told The Daily yesterday. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said of the freak circumstances.

The American Forestry Association bored a small hole in The Senator in 1946, determining the tree was approximately 3,500 years old. That means it sprouted about the same time that biblical history has Moses talking to God via a burning bush, and when Greece was in its pre-Homeric Bronze Age.

The Senator was the No. 1 attraction in the park in Longwood, Fla., Wright said. It was named for state Sen. Moses Oscar Overstreet, who donated 11 surrounding acres as parkland in 1927. Two years later, President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the site with a commemorative bronze plaque, which disappeared decades later.

The national landmark burned yesterday from the inside out, turning its looming trunk into an eerie, orange stovepipe and its live top branches into a flaming torch. A passerby phoned in a report of the fire about 5:30 a.m. Firefighters dragged 800-foot hoses across the wooded terrain, but showering sparks kept them back, Wright said. Then an 80-foot section of the old cypress collapsed, “and the crews pretty much dropped their hoses and ran,” Wright said.

They were able to contain the fire to a few hot spots within the park and to save Lady Liberty, the park’s No. 2 attraction. It’s a 2,000-year-old “companion” to The Senator, 40 feet away and measuring 89 feet high.

“Lady Liberty is a widow now,” Wright said.

Long ago, Seminole Indians used The Senator as a natural compass — pinpointing their whereabouts in terms of how far away they were from the natural skyscraper. For many central Florida residents, the tree was a touchstone — the destination of school field trips and a magnet for hikers and bicyclists.

“It’s part of our history as a family,” a weeping Laura Winfrey told a local television station at the park’s entrance, as her young son held a photograph of the nearly 18-foot wide trunk.

“It was just the largest thing I have ever seen, and I was just amazed by it,” said a somber Nathanial Winfrey.

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