In 30 years as a crane operator, Gary Marriott has lifted yachts, mobile homes, trusses, electrical transformers, derailed trains, a dry dock system on the Miami River and concert stages for Pink Floyd, Genesis and U2.
On Friday he erected a 22-ton baobab tree at the Kampong. The enormous, historic tree that is a sentimental favorite at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Coconut Grove was blown to the ground during Hurricane Irma. Saving it required an engineering feat to counter the wrath of Mother Nature.
“A true survivor,” Marriott said as he admired the tree, standing tall once again, from the cockpit of the 240-ton crane after a long, hot morning of delicate hoisting.
He had to raise and lower the baobab three times because the hole for the root ball had to be dug deeper.
“In our business, drop is not a good word,” he said. “Each job has its individual issues. Sometimes a tree has a mind of its own.”
Reviving the baobab was a symbolic victory for the Kampong, where 260 of its 600 rare and treasured trees were downed or damaged by Irma’s winds on Sept. 10. The tree was planted in 1928 by botanist David Fairchild with seeds from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture property on Old Cutler Road. After it was knocked down by Hurricane Cleo in 1964, it was moved to the Kampong by Catherine Sweeney, who had purchased the estate and saved it from development after Fairchild and his wife died. The baobab was blown over two more times, by Andrew in 1992 and Wilma in 2005 before Irma swept through the 8-acre property.
At age 89, it had grown to a height of 75 feet with an 18-foot circumference, about as big as “a medium-sized humpback whale,” as Kampong Director Craig Morell described it. The tree also contains at least 2,000 gallons of water inside because in its native habitat it has to conserve water.
“So, how do you erect a 22-ton tree and get it back to health?” Morell said. “It’s not on Google.”
With the help of Marriott and his crew from Harrison Crane Service — one of whom had to climb up the tree to adjust a strap and cable — the tree was rescued and staked with anchors embedded in concrete.
“Running a crane involves a whole bunch of math,” oiler Audrey Sirignano said. “People don’t realize that it’s not just pushing levers. It’s very stressful on the operator.”
About 20 feet of the tree’s top branches had to be pruned off, plus another 15 feet on the sides.
“She’s been beaten up rather badly and is kind of misshapen but will regrow quickly,” Morell said. “The tree is going to need some straightening and pruning for the next five to seven years and we’ll have her back in good shape by 2024.”
The tree is so beloved that director emeritus Larry Schokman, the former Sri Lankan tea farmer who lives across the street, wants to have his ashes scattered around the massive trunk.
“It’s a tree that could live many hundreds of years,” Schokman said. “It’s got a lot of spirit and it means so much to the Kampong.”
Recovery at the Kampong is going “remarkably well,” Morell said. “Raising the baobab is like the capstone. We’re trying hard to reopen to the public.”
Cranes are not cheap. Morell estimates it will take $250,000 to pay for restoration. A crowd-funding page has been started at www.youcaring.org/thekampongwillrise.