By ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press
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.