SEATTLE (AP) – Chef Michelle Matsko paused as she walked to work Wednesday, gazed up from beneath her red umbrella and marveled: Nearly 24 hours later, a man was still perched near the top of an 80-foot-tall sequoia tree in the middle of a shopping district in downtown Seattle.
“I’m really impressed,” she said. “It’s been raining. He’s a trouper.”
The man, name and cause unknown, has transfixed the city and the Internet over the past two days as his action prompted police to close adjacent streets and as negotiators tried to coax him down. He appeared to be agitated, gesturing wildly and yelling intermittently or sometimes throwing apples and branches at officers.
“Issue appears to be between the man and the tree,” the Seattle Police Department tweeted.
The department’s tweet was just part of the online commotion the incident sparked, with new Twitter accounts dedicated to it and the hashtag #ManInTree trending on Twitter and Facebook. A local TV station livestreamed video of the man online as he dozed, shouted and knocked around a stick.
Many passers-by, seeming bemused by the man’s antics, pulled out their cellphones Wednesday to snap pictures of his silhouette, accentuated by a long, bushy beard, against the gray morning sky.
Police have not said if the man is a member of the city’s ballooning homeless population. Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency as deaths of homeless people mounted last fall, and the city has authorized new tent cities and safe parking lots for those living without shelter or in their vehicles.
Janice Wilson, who was in town from Crescent City, California, to help her son deal with his own mental health and legal troubles, said she was once homeless herself, 30 years ago. She repeatedly shouted up to the man: “We love you! Come down safely!”
“I heard people out here laughing,” she said. “If somebody’s in crisis to the point of putting himself at risk of suicide, what’s to laugh about? I just pray those branches don’t break.”
Police said they didn’t want to rush the situation, but ensure the man gets down safely. They received their first report about him at 11 a.m. Tuesday. Efforts by the department’s crisis-intervention specialists included trying to speak to him from the ladder of a firetruck and from the sixth-floor windows of the neighboring Macy’s department store.
After spending the night, he appeared to be comfortably reclining in the upper branches Wednesday morning and sometimes flashed a peace sign. He occasionally loosed an expletive that could be heard below, but otherwise his comments – whether to himself or to the officers in the window – were unintelligible.
Seattle Department of Transportation officials said they will review the health of the tree, believed to have been transplanted there in the 1970s, once the incident is resolved.