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UPDATE: Deadly Storm Kills Two In Great Smoky Mountains National Park


Park Service crews were kept busy Friday clearing downed trees in the aftermath of a thunderstorm that raked Great Smoky Mountains National Park and left two dead in its wake. NPS photos.

Editor's note: This updates with word that park officials believe everyone has been accounted for, reopening of Foothills Parkway West, forecast of more thunderstorms.

A thunderstorm packing winds gusting to 70 mph tore through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, downing hundreds of trees, killing two visitors, and injuring several others.

By early afternoon Friday officials believed everyone was accounted for, though some roads and campgrounds in the western portion of the park remained closed due to scores of downed trees. While some media reports mentioned missing hikers, Great Smoky spokeswoman Melissa Cobern said park officials believed everyone had been located.

"We were able to complete a sweep of every single road in the storm-damaged areas and some trails in that immediate area and made sure that everybody was out and accounted for," she said early Friday afternoon from her office. "I feel that by now, if something had happened in the backcountry, we would have heard about it by now."

The potent storm, which National Weather Service meteorologists had been tracking since the Fourth of July as it moved southeast through the United States, tore into the Smokies about 6 p.m. Eastern on Thursday. Behind it was a trail of downed trees and power lines. As it moved through the park, it showered trees down on visitors, including a group cooling off in a popular Abrams Creek swimming hole.

Killed by the storm was a Georgia man who was knocked off his motorcyle by a falling tree limb and a Tennessee woman hit by a tree in that swimming hole. The storm left a trail of damage from Metcalf Bottoms through Cades Cove and up to Abrams Creek.

Park officials say Ralph Frazier, 50, of Buford, Georgia, was hit in the head by the limb while driving about a half-mile east of the Townsend Wye in the park and died at the scene, while Rachael Burkhart, 41, of Corryton, Tennessee, was hit at the swimming hole near the Abrams Creek Campground and died at the scene. An unidentified passenger on Mr. Frazier's motorcycle was not injured.

The tree that killed Ms. Burkhart also hit a family of three that was in the water. A 7-year-old girl was knocked unconscious; bystanders pulled her from the water and performed CPR, said Ms. Cobern. The girl's father sustained fractured vertebrae, broken ribs, and a collapsed lung, while her mother suffered less serious injuries, the park spokeswoman added.

The girl and her father were airlifted to medical facilities at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, while her mother was taken there by ground transportation. Ms. Cobern did not have updated conditions on any of the three.

“We are deeply saddened by the deaths of two of our visitors,” said Superintendent Dale Ditmanson.” Our thoughts are with their families and with those who were injured.”

Park Service crews were making good progress in clearing storm-damaged areas; however, hundreds of trees remain down in the west end of the park from Metcalf Bottoms to Abrams Creek, the park reported Friday afternoon. No other damage or injuries have been reported from any other areas of the park.

Although power has been restored to the Cades Cove area, Cades Cove facilities, as well as the Abrams Creek Campground remain closed. Roads into and out of those areas also remain closed. Crews are doing as much as feasible to expedite road clearing and to reopen roads in storm-damaged areas as soon as possible.

Officials have closed the Cades Cove Campground at least until Sunday evening, and the Lookrock Campground also was closed, as was the Little River Road from Elkmont to the Townsend Wye, the Laurel Creek Road, the Foothills Parkway West, the Cades Cove Loop Road, the Rich Mountain Road, Parson's Branch Road, Weir Gap Road, and Tremont Road. The Foothills Parkway was reopened later Friday once it had been cleared of storm debris.

There was no immediate word on structural damage in the park.

“We haven’t even had an opportunity to do a proper structural assessment at this time. We’ve been so busy getting roads cleared and makeing sure everybody is safe and getting medical atention to people who need it," Ms. Cobern said, adding that she hadn't "heard anything in regard to any buidlings or facilities.”

At the NWS office in Morristown, Tennessee, meteorologist Derek Eisentrout said staff had been tracking the storm since the Fourth of July.

“It was an organized area of thunderstorms that we had actually been following for over a day. On the Fourth of July it was up in the Minnesota area," he said, adding that by Thursday morning it had moved down over Ohio and headed on towards Tennessee.

“As it progressed further south, those thunderstorms just blossoomed as they hit our area," he said.

The storms carried a pool of cooler air in the upper levels of the atmosphere, and "when that hit the hot, humid air mass that we had here it caused pretty rapid convection, which caused pretty strong thunderstorms," the meteorologist explained.

While more thunderstorms were in the park's forecast for Friday afternoon and evening, Mr. Eisentrout said they weren't expected to be as powerful as the one that hit the park Thursday.

"You could get some severe storms, but nothing like yesterday," he said. "That was really an organized convective complex. This today is just going to be your summertime afternoon showers and thunderstorms.”

Powerful summer thunderstorms are not atypical for the Smokies. According to Weather Service records, "in 2008, 5 consecutive days of storms hit the area, resulting in extensive wind damage."


MY PRAYERS AND DEEPESTY SYMPATHIES to the familys of the 2 killed, and many prayers and smokes for all who are injured---It tears my soul apart to hear that this horrid storm has once again damaged and torn up the CADES COVE area, one of the(it not THE) mmost beautiful spots in the Great Smoky Mountain's!!!!!!!!!God be with all involved and related to this natural but horrifying weather incident.

Does anyone know if the old churches in Cades Cove were damaged ?

Don, good question. I just added a sentence to the story that there's no word yet on structural damage in the park.

Well, I am exhausted! Did not get home to Atlanta til 4:30 am and up for work at 8 am. I must express how grateful I am to the park rangers and employees who made a very trying time manageable. Kudos to the park employees who held flashlights so we could find our way to the restroom. I was particularly impressed by the employee who was sweeping the restroom floor in the dark. I expressed my appreciation. She replied, "I just want to make it nicer for you all." This was around 9 pm and she had been stuck there after a long day of work. I prayed my teenaged sons would find something redeeming about this experience. Well, humankindness prevailed... college aged campers passing out food campers had donated, others loaning us flashlights to inspect the damage on our car, people teaching me how to use a payphone (AGAIN!) since no cell service

, many strangers visiting together about their experiences, where they were from, their favorite sports team.
When we were finally allowed to drive out, my younger son said, "We met so many nice people. Sad to leave them." Yes, some good did come out of bad!!

I decided wednesday night to head out thursday afternoon to hike up the alum cave trail and stay at LeConte that evening but my friend delayed my departure to the park by three hours because he needed help moving some instead i decided on a shorter easier hike to backcountry site 18 which is right smack dab in the middle of the worst hit sectioin of the park. Hiking up the boat mountain trail I was hearing distant thunder and my only concern was getting to camp and getting my tent up before the rain. The thunder got scary loud and thats when i hit the switchback and saw what was sneaking up behind me. The sky was BLACK with that tornado green hue. I then realized I was about to have to fight for my very existense. The winds hit with a screaming roar and the trees went from being perfectlyt erect to a 90' angle in a matter of two seconds. I think to myself...thats the breaking world is about to get rocked. Rocked doesnt even put a dent in it. I was now in the most extreme fight for my life, every one out of ten trees seemed to be exploding simultainiously forcing me to keep my head up and send me sprinting with a 100 pound pack back up the trail, down the trail, off the trail back up the trail dodging massive trees on every side of me. I came so close to getting smashed when a huge maple lost its top limbs and came down grazing my backpack sending me to the ground. I was just hoping I would get to the campsite and find other backpackers with tents up already so i could just dive in out of the rain. However my heart sank to my gut when I arrived and saw not another soul. I had to drop my pack and set up my tent during the storm because there was no other shelter. Then the spot I chose turned into a river and i had to drag it up the trail on a slant to keep from flooding out. I still had hopes of having a good time out there. Afterall it was my only day off work this week. The storm passed and i ventured out into the rain to check the secluded tent sites of campsite 18. To my surprise I found one other hiker close to my age out doing the same thing. We ended up getting a nice campfire going, enjoyed a few brews, cooked some burgers and talked about hiking some of the many manways in the park. It wasnt until almost 1 p.m. friday afternoon before rangers and search parties approached me on my way out and asked if everyone was okay out here. The road had trees down every 10 yards or so. I had to wait an hour before i could even get past the road crews. So next time you are hiking along and see a giant fallen tree and say to yourself "I bet it'd be cool to see one of those fall" think again, it was like world war three out there.

100 lb pack for an overnighter?

Well, he did say that had a few "brews" - maybe that's made his pack so heavy.

"100 lb pack for an overnighter?"

Until they discover how to dehydrate beer .... Now that would be a great invention!!!!!

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