The lifetime of a sensor network is influenced by the efficient utilization of the resource constrained sensor nodes. The tree-based data gathering offers good quality of service (QoS) for the running applications. However, data gathering at the sink reduces the network lifetime due to a fast failure of highly loaded nodes. Loss of connectivity and sensing coverage affect the performance of the applications that demand critical QoS. In this paper, a data gathering tree management scheme has been proposed to deal with arbitrary node failures in delay-sensitive sensor networks. A load-balanced distributed BFS tree construction procedure has been introduced for an efficient data gathering. Based on the initial tree construction, a tree maintenance scheme and an application message handler have been designed to ensure the reliable delivery of the application messages. The correctness of the proposed scheme has been verified both theoretically and with the help of simulation. The proposed scheme offers low overhead, enhanced network lifetime and good QoS in terms of delay and reliability of the application messages. © 2014, Springer Science+Business Media New York.