TWO small children had an incredible escape when a large branch fell 50ft on top of them in York city centre, smashing through a metal barrier.

Visitors and shoppers were milling around at the Coppergate Centre when the branch fell from an old horse chestnut tree on to a family, including a toddler and a young boy.

Beth Flanagan, 25, a York nurse who was one of a number of people who rushed to help free the family, said: “I went under the branches and they were sitting inside, underneath.

“They were completely surrounded by branches and leaves. The branches formed a domed space around them and they were sat in a little gap. I thought they were going to be seriously injured. But I checked them over and they just had scratches.”

The family, said to be badly shaken, was taken into the nearby Marks & Spencer store, where staff administered first aid while they waited for paramedics.

Sian Harrison, 19, who had been working at the nearby Water Walkers attraction at the time of the incident on Saturday afternoon, said: “I just heard this creak and looked up and saw the branch coming down, it must have fallen from more than 40ft. I just felt so helpless watching it fall down, then I heard all the screaming.

“It just demolished the whole metal fence in front of them. If it had done that to a fence, what would it have done to a child? I think that’s what probably saved them. It’s just miraculous how they survived.”

Ali Bodley said the branch missed her by inches as she sat eating her lunch. “I heard a loud crack and crashing sound and the branch came down,” she said.

“People were screaming and rushed to help those under the branch, which included a small child in a pushchair.

“It was all very scary. It was lucky no one took a direct hit. The police asked people to move away from the seating and put up barriers in case another branch came down.”

John Corner said the wind had just been stirring the branches when there was a loud crack and the branch, which was about ten inches thick, fell. “The barriers surrounding the ball splashing area were completely flattened.”

Ann-Marie Leach said there was a stunned silence after the branch fell before a woman started screaming: “Get it off him.”

“The family had a relatively lucky escape as it was clear they were almost unscathed,” she said. “The woman was understandably shocked and the little boy had a cut on his head where he’d been hit, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Centre manager Deb O’Donnell said: “The safety and well-being of our shoppers is of paramount concern and to that end we have a specialist arboriculture team who conduct regular assessments of the horse chestnut.

“The last inspection took place just three weeks ago, on Thursday, July 4, and no issues were reported with the tree or indeed any of its branches. An investigation into how and why this incident occurred is on-going. At this time we are simply grateful that none of our shoppers were seriously injured.”