Neighbors heard loud boom ahead of 2 dying in Watauga County mudslide

WATAUGA COUNTY, N.C. — A chain reaction killed two people when a mudslide slammed into a Watauga County home during Wednesday night’s storms, causing a gas leak and explosion that ripped apart the home.

Chopper 9 flew over the damage Thursday at the home on Pine Ridge Drive.

Authorities told Channel 9 there was the sound of a loud explosion just before they learned of the mudslide.

Several people gathered near the home Thursday to remember the couple who died here.

Photos from Chopper 9 Skyzoom showed that there was little remaining of the home in the Heavenly Mountain community near Boone.

Authorities believe the slide ruptured a gas line that possibly led to an explosion which resulted in the collapse.

Neighbors said the explosion shook other buildings in the area.

"I was about three blocks from where the boom actually occurred and I was just sitting there and all the sudden there was this blast,” neighbor John Fillinger said.

Personnel from several agencies converged on the neighborhood Wednesday evening. First responders dug through the pile of rubble and found two people dead.

The names of the victims have not been released.

Boone police posted video overnight of crews working at the scene of the collapse, using a backhoe and other equipment to remove materials.

The Watauga County Sheriff’s Office is being assisted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and local fire investigators in the effort to determine what happened in the gated mountain community.

After the slide, fire departments across the foothills and mountains sent rescuers hoping to find someone alive.

Investigators were back at the home Thursday, but the wet weather has hampered those efforts.

"The conditions we've experienced over the last few weeks and it's probably gonna rain again it makes it very, very hazardous,” Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said.

The sheriff said most of the mud that came down was next to the garage.

In Caldwell County, conditions remained dangerous.

North Carolina Department of Transportation officials scrambled to clear trees, mud and rocks from Waterfalls Road north of Lenoir on Thursday.

As they worked to clean up the mess, more dirt slid on the hillside.

"We're hoping it will quit raining where we can do more work at a faster pace,” NCDOT official Jim Pendry said. “Right now, it is keeping us slowed down because something else keeps happening."

By lunchtime Thursday, rain was falling across the high country where road crews continued to make repairs to roads damaged during the past two weeks.

Near Grandfather Mountain, a half-dozen mudslides shut down roads in the area. A part of Avery County received more than a foot of rain during the past month.

"The slide up here has come all the way down across this road. It's a mess,” road worker Dolan Carpenter said.

Andres Tzotchew, who owns a home in the area, dug a path around his home to divert all the water that rises quickly because the ground is so saturated.

"Redirect the water so it's not flowing under my shed,” he said. “Like obviously there's not a whole lot you can do about the weather."

NCDOT officials said it could take time to repair the roads. One road in Avery County is not expected to reopen for three weeks.

On Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency after days of rain caused havoc in western North Carolina.

The region has seen flash floods, rising rivers, mudslides and falling trees.

On Thursday, Cooper will visit some of the areas heavily damaged by the storms, including Polk, Rutherford and McDowell counties.

In Caldwell County, Waterfalls Road in the Patterson community was closed Thursday morning due to a large landslide.

Residents were being asked to avoid the area and use Highway 321 as an alternate route.

The landslide caused power outages as trees brought down several power lines.

Channel 9 has also received reports that a landslide in Avery County could keep a road off Highway 221 closed for the next three weeks.

McDowell County Emergency Management confirmed 200 people from campgrounds and residential communities near the Lake Tahoma Dam were in shelters Tuesday night.

Patsy Barnwell was praying the rain stops. Her camper, where she lives full time, was flooded by high water along the Catawba River. She and others woke to the sound of a loudspeaker ordering everyone to get out.

"It's dangerous,” Barnwell said. “We have seen a lot of people pulling people out and saw some of them just about washed down the river."

Around 10 a.m. Wednesday, officials said they were closing those shelters and that residents could return home. Engineers deemed the dam safe and the mandatory evacuation order was canceled.

"The soil became saturated and slid off a rock face but it's well below the toe of the dam so there's no concern at this time," dam engineer Jeffrey Brown said.

Marie Belton spent the night in a shelter with her family and isn't sure what will be left when she finally gets home.

"I'm terrified,” Belton said. “There's no insurance on that camper so if it is gone, it is gone and there's nothing we can do about it.”

Old Fort and Marion were the hardest-hit communities Tuesday night. Emergency management officials said there had been several landslides in the county as well as moderate flooding in western and central communities.

Four swift water rescues were carried out.

Two NCDOT workers were rescued after the tandem dump truck they were using to help clear a mudslide was pushed off a road by another slide and into the Catawba River. They climbed out through a passenger window and stood on the side of the truck in the water until emergency crews got them to safety.

"Our emergency response and transportation crews have been working through the night to keep North Carolinians safe as conditions deteriorate," Cooper said. "But this storm isn't yet over. I'm urging people to keep a close eye on forecasts and flood watches, and asking drivers to use caution especially when traveling in our western counties," said Cooper.

Early Wednesday morning, the Charlotte Fire Department sent a 16-person water rescue team to McDowell County. That personnel is trained in boat operations and technical water rescue.

According to the National Weather Service, floodwaters have reached levels not seen since the floods of September 2004 following Hurricanes Frances and Ivan.

In Asheville, numerous streets were flooded, particularly in Biltmore VIllage.

[CLICK HERE for Asheville flood updates]

I-40 reopens following mudslide

On Tuesday evening, a mudslide in Old Fort forced the shutdown of a portion of Interstate 40.

Officials said some of the vehicles on the roadway were trapped after the slide occurred. All of the occupants were able to get out and no injuries were reported.

In Rutherford County, a State of Emergency is in place for communities along Lake Lure and the Broad River.

River levels rose over seven and a half feet, and the town of Lake Lure has repeatedly opened the floodgates to release some of that water.

Campgrounds in the area have been evacuated and residents living along the river have been told to get to higher ground.

Below is a list of highways and primary roads that are closed in the western part of the state. Some secondary roads, but not all, are included.

U.S. 221
Secondary Roads: Pilot Ridge Road, Edgemont Road

Secondary Road: Rominger Road near Watauga River Road

Secondary Road: Hill Dairy Road

Secondary Roads: Brown Mountain Beach Road, Old Johns River Road, Camp Carolwood Road

I-40: Two westbound lanes and one eastbound lane near MM 67
Swannanoa River Road, Fairview Road at Swannanoa River Road, Sweeten Creek Road near Biltmore Village, Riverside Drive, U.S. 25 in Biltmore Village

I-40: Two westbound lanes and one eastbound lane near MM 67
N.C. 80 northbound

N.C. 197

U.S. 64/74
Secondary Road: Bills Creek Road near Antioch

Secondary Roads: Middle Fork Road, Brookside Camp Road, Willow Road at River Road, Butler Bridge Road from Jeffress Road and Tap Root Dairy, Ledbetter Road, Balfour Road, Gilliam Road, Hooper Lane, Hoopers Creek Road, Nix Road, N. Ridge Road, Erkwood Road, S. Mills Gap Road, Howard Gap Road between Nix Road and N. Clear Creek Road, Old Airport Road at Blue Ridge Community College, East New Hope Road off of Old Airport Road

Secondary Road: River Road

U.S. 176 between Ozone Drive and Harmon Field Drive
Secondary Roads: Howard Gap Road, Holbert Cove Road, Abrams and Moore Road, John Watson Road, Green River Cove Road

Secondary Roads: Island Ford Road, Barclay Road, Davidson River Road, Cascade Lake Road, Wilson Road

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