The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two journalists covering storm die after tree falls on their vehicle in North Carolina

A TV news anchor and a camera operator were killed May 28 when a tree fell on their vehicle as they were covering subtropical storm Alberto in North Carolina. (Video: Reuters)

A local news anchor and photojournalist from Greenville, S.C., died Monday while covering subtropical storm Alberto when a tree fell on their news vehicle, crushing it and trapping them inside, according to authorities and the television station, WYFF.

WYFF broke the news on the air during its 6 p.m. broadcast.

“Tonight,” WYFF anchor Carol Goldsmith began, “our news family grieves over the loss of two special journalists and two special friends.”

The anchor, Michael McCormick, and photojournalist, Aaron Smeltzer, were traveling on Highway 176 in Polk County, N.C., about 30 miles north of Greenville, when the tree fell about 30 feet onto their SUV, said Tryon Fire Department Chief Geoffrey Tennant. The vehicle was apparently in motion at the time the tree fell on it, Tennant said, because when the fire department arrived on scene, the transmission was running and the vehicle was still in drive.

Tennant told a room full of reporters that he didn’t know the reporters personally — but he met them for the first time just 10 or 15 minutes before the 911 call came over the dispatch. They were interviewing him as part of their storm coverage, he said.

“We talked a little bit about how he wanted us to stay safe, and we wanted him to stay safe,” Tennant said of McCormick. “Then of course, 10, 15 minutes later we get the call, and it was him and his photographer.”

Tennant noted that the ground has been saturated from recent torrential rainfall due to the storm, possibly causing the tree to fall. The exact cause of death has not been released.

“I have never seen an event like this one,” he told reporters. “It is a freak of nature. It’s one of those things that you know it’s going to happen, or you can predict it may happen — you just don’t know when.”

The potential for flash floods and mudslides in Polk County had been forecast as severe enough that emergency management officials issued a voluntary evacuation Sunday night. There had also recently been a mudslide in the area.

Alberto made landfall in Laguna Beach, Fla., as a subtropical storm and ripped through the southeastern United States  with peak winds of 65 miles per hour. The National Weather Service downgraded it to a subtropical depression on Monday night, but the threat of heavy rain remained.

In a statement, WYFF described McCormick and Smeltzer as dedicated journalists. McCormick began as a reporter for WYFF in 2007 at the station’s sister newsroom in Spartanburg, S.C., and became a weekend anchor for the station in 2014. Smeltzer began with the station earlier this year.

“Mike and Aaron were stellar journalists, dedicated to covering news in this market,” John Humphries, WYFF president and general manager, said in the statement. “They were beloved members of our newsroom and we will miss them tremendously. Today is a difficult day, and there will be many more ahead.”

More from Morning Mix:

Armed bystander fatally shoots gunman who opened fire in Oklahoma City restaurant