She didn't hesitate, didn't think. Therese McAllister turned and ran for her life, screaming as she bolted down the stairs, "Get out! Get out! Get out!"
Just 10 minutes earlier, at 10:34 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28, she had texted her 20-year-old son, Terence, who was away at college and concerned about how the family had fared during Hurricane Irene.
"No tree down," she wrote him. "Very bad winds, lots of rain but the two big trees are still upright. So we are just fine!
"The yard filled with branches and you can't see much grass with all the leaves down. Wish my strong son or husband was home to help clean up."
She and her 25-year-old daughter, Mairead, slept in the basement of the house on Alabama Road that night. During storms, it's not unusual for some residents of the Southland Hills community of Towson to take that precaution — some trees there dwarf the houses.
The towering oak was more than 150 years old. McAllister has been told it is one of the largest in Towson.
About 120 feet high, it shaded the entire back yard of their quarter-acre lot.
The tree was dear to her husband, a managing director at Legg Mason. He enjoyed the mornings, sitting under its branches on the bluestone patio beside the traditional Irish stone wall, with his breakfast, his dog and his newspaper.
"Occasionally, on weekends, he'd hook a hammock to the tree," his wife said.
Eight years ago, she had a steel cable put in the tree, on advice from the Davey Tree Expert Co., to help it land more safely if it fell.
"I'm so glad I did," she said. "I was skeptical at the time. I thought they were just trying to sell me something, but when you have big trees, you owe it to your neighbors to look after them."
Since then she had Davey check it each year.
She and her husband grew up in New England, but they and their three children had been living in Ireland for more than eight years before they came to Southland Hills.
Her husband, who worked for Black & Decker at the time, was reluctant to move. But it was time for them to come back to the states. Both sets of their parents were in Boston getting up in years.
With help from friends Sharon and Rob Welling, the McAllisters purchased the house on the Internet that March. She flew over one time to videotape everything.
Michael McAllister had never laid eyes on his new home by the time they pulled up in the driveway the first time that August. The wall was there in the back yard — as she had promised. It was only 20 inches high, but it provided extra seating for the bluestone patio, and she had had it built by Irish stone masons so he could recall their years in Ireland.
Their daughters, Mairead and Deirdre, who was two years younger than her sister, couldn't replicate the castles of Ireland at their new home, but they attended Maryvale Preparatory School, which has a castle of its own.
Craaaack of dawn
On the weekend that Hurricane Irene hit, her husband was in Boston with his parents.
Therese woke up earlier than Mairead that Sunday. After texting her son that everything was all right, she went upstairs.
She heard the loud craaaack as soon as she opened the bedroom window, looked up at the oak looming above her and instantly saw the fissure beginning to split the tree.
She wasn't exaggerating when she said she ran for her life, she said. She met Mairead, who had bolted up the basement steps in response to her screams, at the front door just as she opened it.
"The noise was unbelievable," she said. "It sounded like an explosion. We ran onto the street in our night clothes."
She was joined by startled neighbors wondering what had happened.
She was shaking, almost in shock, she said. Her first thought was to get immediate neighbors out of their homes and she knocked on doors, but nobody answered.
After neighbors Rick and Lisa Hoehn took them in and gave them coffee, "somebody walked back into my house," she said. "We were told the back of the house had been hit, but the roof was intact."
Initially, they couldn't get in or out of the back yard or the back of the house.
The huge branch, which was fully a third of the tree, had split away, taken down a dogwood and a tulip poplar and flattened their gas grill "to a pancake," she said. Fortunately, the propane cylinder didn't get hit. Later, Davey would have to send a man to remove it before they could start working.
Bigger than many full trees in Towson, the branch flattened the fence between their yard and the Hoehns' yard, and the tree canopy, which filled both yards, had destroyed the Hoehns' vegetable garden.
The situation was far from stable. The branch was partially attached 18 feet up the trunk and the cracking sounds that Sunday night were ominous, she said.
Luckily the branch had fallen parallel to their house instead of across it, but the canopy was pushing against the rear wall of the house and had destroyed an exterior door and some wall lights and scraped windows.
"But I feel blessed that no one was injured," she said.
But the tree had to come down.
"You can't have a half a tree standing there," she said. It would be dangerous."
When he came back from Boston, her husband initially fought the idea, she said. He said he would do whatever it takes to save the tree.
"This was huge for him," she said, "a really big thing."
But after long discussions with Davey and Rick Hoehn, who is a landscape architect, the decision was made to take it down.
Loss in the family
The oak, which had been a resident of Southland Hills long before they or their parents' parents were born, did not go gentle into that good night.
In fact, it took two full days, flat bed trucks, a 120-ton crane, a chipper capable of devouring branches over a foot in diameter, and six men working at any given time, according to Todd Armstrong, Davey Tree's assistant district manager.
It became the neighborhood sideshow. It was not unusual to see a man dangling in the air 50 feet over the intersection of Dixie Drive and Alabama Road as the crane moved him back and forth to the tree, which was high on the hill above their impromptu base of operations and behind another house.
The $13,000 tab will be paid by Fireman's Fund Insurance, she said.
The other day the family watched the video she had taken of the house and the tree 10 years ago, she said. "It was poignant."
They will have to redo the back yard with plants that thrive in sunlight instead of shade. Rick Hoehn suggested they might plant some of the tree's acorns.
The patio has a few cracks, but the stone wall survived.
The huge stump of the tree remains. At its widest point it is nearly 6 feet across. It will be impossible to get a stump grinder in the yard because of the narrow entry space.
Therese said she thought about letting the stump decay naturally. But that didn't sound good to her husband.
"He thought it would be too painful a reminder," she said.