TRYON, N.C. — A TV news anchor and a photojournalist were killed Monday when a tree fell on their vehicle in North Carolina as they reported on flooding and severe weather associated with Subtropical Storm Alberto, the television station said.
WYFF-TV Anchor Mike McCormick and photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer both worked in the Greenville, South Carolina, market for more than a decade, anchor Carol Goldsmith said on air, breaking the news.
"Mike and Aaron were beloved members of our team - our family," Goldsmith said.
The men were driving on U.S. Highway 176 near Tryon when the large tree fell on their vehicle, North Carolina Highway Patrol Master Trooper Murico Stephens said.
McCormick and Smeltzer had just interviewed Tryon Fire Chief Geoffrey Tennant. They told Tennant to be careful with Alberto's remnant expected to bring more heavy rains and mudslides this week. He told them to be careful too.
"Ten minutes later we get the call and it was them," Tennant said at a news conference, his voice cracking.
A woman died in a mudslide on May 19 not far from the wreck and officials in Polk County were asking people living in vulnerable areas to voluntary leave before the weather got worse.
Neither Stephens nor Tennant directly blamed the up to 2 inches of rain that fell Monday from the fringes of Alberto for the deaths. The fire chief said the roots of the 3-foot diameter tree were loosened in ground saturated by a week's worth of rain.
The TV vehicle engine's was still running and the transmission was in drive when crews found it. The men died instantly, said Tennant, who called the deaths a "freak of nature."
McCormick was a weekend anchor for the Greenville station and covered Spartanburg and surrounding areas. He came to the station in April 2007.
Smeltzer worked in Greenville for more than a decade, coming to WYFF-TV from a different station in the market. He touted on his Twitter biography of winning four Emmys.
WHNS-TV reporter Derek Dellinger competed with McCormick and Smeltzer, but also considered them friends. He called Smeltzer a perfectionist and McCormick a hard worker and a nice guy.
"Despite being the competition, I had interactions with (McCormick) both in and out of work, and we would talk about work issues, talk about life - everything, because we were in such a similar position at our respective stations," Dellinger said, calling him "a good guy" with a warm heart.
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper statement:
As Subtropical Storm Alberto continues to bring heavy rains, flooding and the potential for landslides to North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper urged residents to take seriously the storm, which has claimed two lives in the state.
Two people died earlier today in Polk County due to storm conditions when a tree landed on their vehicle as they traveled along U.S. 176. The victims have been identified as news anchor Mike McCormick and photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer, both with South Carolina television station WYFF and in the area to cover the storm. The State Highway Patrol is investigating the incident and will release more information as they are able.
"Two journalists working to keep the public informed about this storm have tragically lost their lives, and we mourn with their families, friends and colleagues," Gov. Cooper said. "North Carolina needs to take Alberto seriously. I urge everyone to keep a close eye on forecasts, warnings and road conditions, especially in western North Carolina where even heavier rain is predicted through tomorrow."
State Public Safety officials are coordinating with local officials and cautioning residents to monitor forecasts and warnings closely as heavy rains from Alberto further saturate North Carolina causing flash flooding and increasing the potential for landslides.
State Transportation officials expect that U.S. 176 will remain closed until at least Tuesday afternoon between Harmon Field Road and Ozone Drive in Polk County due to flooding and the fallen tree which caused the fatalities earlier today.
Elsewhere in the mountain counties, NCDOT will continue to monitor roadways for potential flooding and landslides because of already saturated ground from rain that fell during the past week. There are also concerns that some roads could flood in the eastern part of the state, where crews will be on standby to shut down roads that become unsafe because of floodwater.
Much of the state remains under a Flash Flood Watch that has been extended through Wednesday morning. State Emergency Management meteorologists predict rainfall totals to reach 3-to-6 inches statewide with locally higher amounts possibly reaching 8 inches along the eastern and southern slopes of the mountains over the next few days.
Already, minor flooding is occurring along the Roanoke River near Roanoke Rapids and officials are closely monitoring the Roanoke River near Williamston. Minor flooding is anticipated along the Cape Fear River at Wilmington from Tuesday morning through Wednesday and near Burgaw on Friday. In western North Carolina, minor flooding is expected along the French Broad River near Blantyre on Wednesday. Public safety officials also are closely monitoring the French Broad River at Asheville and Fletcher. Rainfall could lead to additional landslides across western NC where some of the greatest accumulations are expected.
"Emergency management and law enforcement officials are working closely to respond to any trouble spots," Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said. "We urge North Carolina residents and visitors to monitor local weather forecasts and heed warnings from local officials."
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