2 dead as violent storm lashes Great Smokies

July 6, 2012 - 7:43 PM
Summer Storms Smoky Mountains

A camper's SUV drives by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance as a more than mile-long convoy of vehicles is lead out of the popular tourist spot near Townsend, Tenn., on Friday, July 6, 2012, a day after violent thunderstorms swept through, killing at least two people. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

TOWNSEND, Tenn. (AP) — Crews spent Friday clearing trees and reaching stranded visitors at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, a day after violent thunderstorms swept through the popular tourist spot, killing at least two people and injuring several others.

The storms hit Thursday evening at the west end of the 500,000-acre, densely forested reserve on the Tennessee-North Carolina line. The storms then moved down the mountains to the Tennessee River Valley.

At Abrams Creek Campground, a tree fell into a swimming hole, killing 41-year-old Rachael Burkhart, of Corryton, Tenn., park officials said.

The same tree struck a family, including a 7-year-old girl, who was unconscious when pulled from the water, but revived after her mother performed CPR. The father suffered vertebrae fractures, multiple broken ribs and a collapsed lung and the mother was injured less seriously.

Carole Cooper came upon the scene when she was returning to her private cabin nearby after swimming with friends.

Campers helped bring the 7-year-old to Cooper's SUV, where Cooper performed first aid. Meanwhile Cooper's friends, one of whom is a physician, went to the creek to try to help Burkhart and the girl's father.

Cooper used her OnStar satellite communications service to call for help, but with the roads blocked, emergency workers had to walk in to the campsite, she said. Her vehicle became a makeshift command post as the rescue workers used her OnStar to communicate with other first responders.

"We were many hours with the injured because we couldn't get them out," she said.

After about four or five hours, enough trees had been cleared that emergency workers could drive Cooper's SUV partway out of the park, but they still had to walk the injured on stretchers to waiting ambulances.

The girl and her father were airlifted to a Knoxville hospital. Their conditions were not available Friday.

Also killed in the park was Ralph Frazier, 50, of Buford, Ga., who was riding a motorcycle when a falling limb struck him in the head, park officials said. His passenger was uninjured.

Most of the damage appeared to be in the popular Cades Cove area of the park and in communities just outside the park boundaries.

"At Cades Cove we had three medical emergencies, we had a cardiac involving a woman, we had a man struck by a tree who sustained a back injury and we had a third male who was injured by shattered windshield glass when the vehicle was struck by a tree," Chief Ranger Clayton Jordan said. "It took us up to six hours to be able to gain access for ambulances to get into Cades Cove and evacuate the injured there."

On Friday, the first priority was to establish an emergency path to reach stranded vehicles.

"All through the night we were finding these pockets of stranded motorists and freeing them up" he said. Rangers also were trying to account for all the occupants of the unoccupied vehicles they found along the roads and checking back-country camping permits.

"We're trying to work through all of those to make sure we don't have anyone still out there unaccounted for," he said. ..."We don't have any reports of anyone in distress or any reports of overdue campers at this point."

Marc Elder, of Winter Haven, Fla., was at Cades Cove with his children for a day hike when the storm hit, and they ended up getting stranded in his vehicle for about five hours. Given the destruction of the storm, he said it was amazing the wait was so short.

"We literally drove through just a tunnel of debris with trees across the road and over it," he said.

Linda Nguyen, a producer at WATE-TV in Knoxville, was at Cades Cove working on a special program about the Smokies when the storm hit and she also got stuck inside the park.

"There were thousands of trees that had fallen," she said. "It looked like a tornado had touched down. ...It was really kind of scary because there were areas where we were parked under downed trees that were still hanging. We thought, 'If one more storm comes through, we're going to get crushed.'"

Meanwhile, others, like Eric Breidenstein, his wife and five children, including 1-year-old twins, were trapped outside the park with only a couple of diapers after going into town for dinner.

The family spent the night in an emergency shelter set up at Tuckaleechee United Methodist Church in the small town of Townsend, which bills itself as "the backdoor to Cades Cove."

On Friday afternoon, they were waiting to go back into the park to collect their belongings.

"All our stuff is there," he said. "Well, we don't know whether it's there or whether something happened to it."

Sandy Headrick, who has owned the Highland Manor Inn in Townsend for 30 years, said the storm was very unusual in that it blew out of the north and east. The wind usually comes out of the west, she said.

"There was a lot of rain, a lot of wind. A lot of people lost power," she said.

"We had some friends who had a tree hit their home," she said. "They're all right, but the house is gone. It came through the roof and took out the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room."

Although multiple injuries were reported in the park, Headrick said she believes everyone in the town is OK.

"Everyone's out picking up branches and pulling tree limbs out of their pools. ... We got a lot of cleanup to do."

National Weather Service meteorologist Derek Eisentrout in Morristown said Friday that the severe heat that has gripped the region set up the intensity of the storms that struck Thursday.

"It was so hot and began to get humid," Eisentrout said. "The storms had a pool of cold air, which met up with that hot, humid air."

The same storm system killed a child and her grandmother in Chattanooga when high winds overturned a 30-foot double-decker pontoon boat she was on in Chickamauga Lake.

Dan Hicks, spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, said the other 10 people on the boat survived.

In Blount County, a woman had to be rescued from her car when a tree blew down onto the vehicle.

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Associated Press reporters Travis Loller and Lucas Johnson III contributed to this report from Nashville.