TOWNSEND, Tenn. (AP) — Violent thunderstorms swept through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, toppling large trees throughout the popular tourist spot and killing at least two people.
Ralph Frazier, 50, of Buford, Ga., was riding a motorcycle when a falling limb struck him in the head, park officials said. Rachael Burkhart, 41, of Corryton, Tenn., died when a tree fell on her at Abrams Creek Campground.
The same tree struck a family, including a 7-year-old girl who was swimming in a creek. She and her father were airlifted to a Knoxville hospital. Their conditions were not available Friday.
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. Most of the damage appeared to be in the popular Cades Cove area of the park and in communities just outside the park boundaries.
The same storm system killed a child and her grandmother in Chattanooga when high winds overturned a 30-foot double-decker pontoon boat she was on in Chickamauga Lake.
Dan Hicks, spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, said the other 10 people on the boat survived.
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 at about 6 p.m. She and her photographer tried to get out and were stuck on the road for more than five hours.
"There were thousands of trees that had fallen," she said. "It looked like a tornado had touched down. ...There were big trees, limbs. 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.'"
Cades Cove is a mountain hollow that was a farming community before the federal government created the park in the 1930s to save it from clear-cut logging. The cove contains log cabins and sawn-wood houses built by people who originally settled the cove, and it is one of the most popular visitor stops in the Smokies.
In the small town of Townsend, which bills itself as "the backdoor to Cades Cove," officials set up an emergency shelter for campers fleeing the storm at the Tuckaleechee United Methodist Church.
"The first ones that came in were worried because there was a hiking group that was missing. They weren't sure where people were," pastor Kristie Banes said. The missing hikers were eventually found.
Eric Briedsenstein, who had been camping at Cades Cove with his wife and five children, including 1-year-old twins, also took shelter at the church Thursday night. The family had driven to Gatlinburg for dinner and was trapped outside the park when the storm hit.
"All our stuff is there," he said on Friday afternoon. "Well, we don't know whether it's there or whether something happened to it. All we brought with us were a couple of diapers."
Sandy Headrick, who has owned the Highland Manor Inn in Townsend for 30 years, said the storm was very unusual in that it blew out of the north and east. The wind usually comes out of the west, she said.
"There was a lot of rain, a lot of wind. A lot of people lost power," she said.
"We had some friends who had a tree hit their home," she said. "They're all right, but the house is gone. It came through the roof and took out the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room."
Although multiple injuries were reported in the park, Headrick said she believes everyone in the town is OK.
"Everyone's out picking up branches and pulling tree limbs out of their pools. ... We got a lot of clean-up to do."
Smokies park ranger Kent Cave said on Friday afternoon that officials believe everyone has been accounted for inside the park, though rangers are still doing checks.
Cave said rangers planned to close the 159 camping sites at Cades Cove, which were all full before the storm, but would allow campers back in to retrieve their belongings. The much smaller Abrams Creek campground was closed to new campers.
Chain saw crews were working to clear area roads.
National Weather Service meteorologist Derek Eisentrout in Morristown said Friday the severe heat that has gripped the region set up the intensity of the storms that struck Thursday.
"It was so hot and began to get humid," Eisentrout said. "The storms had a pool of cold air, which met up with that hot, humid air."
In Blount County, a woman had to be rescued from her car when a tree blew down onto the vehicle. More scattered thunderstorms were possible Friday.
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