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TV crew killed by falling tree while reporting on harrowing Storm Alberto

According to local law enforcement, the tree that hit the SUV is estimated to be close to three-feet in diameter
UPDATED FEB 24, 2020
Tropical Storm Alberto (Getty Images)
Tropical Storm Alberto (Getty Images)

On Monday, a TV anchor and photographer from South Carolina lost their lives while covering the subtropical Storm Alberto after a large tree fell on their station's SUV.

Mike McCormick, a news anchor, and Aaron Smeltzer, a photojournalist, both of whom worked for WYFF news, died instantly when a tree fell on their SUV as they were gauging the "rain impact" in Polk County in North Carolina.

In a press conference, Tryon Fire Chief Geoffrey Tennant informed that his fire station received a call at about 2:30 pm that people were trapped inside a vehicle after a tree fell on it directly. According to local law enforcement, the tree that fell on the SUV is estimated to be close to “three feet in diameter.”

The engine was running and the gear transmission was in drive mode when authorities found the stuck vehicle, which indicated that the vehicle was in motion at the time of impact, said Tennant. The group was traveling a little before 2:30 pm ET on US 176 near Tryon, North Carolina.

While Tennant thinks that this was a result of grounds saturated with rain, he does not believe it was a slide. “I think it was a matter of the tree root system had failed and the tree came down,” Tennant said during the press conference. 

“All of us at WYFF 4 are grieving,” News Director Bruce Barkley said in a press release. “We thank you for your comfort as we mourn. We ask that you keep Mike and Aaron's families in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.”

Tragically, McCormick had interviewed Tennant just 10 minutes before he and his co-worker were killed by the descending tree, and thus the incident affected him rather "personally", said the sullen fire chief.

"I had done an interview with Mr McCormick about 10 minutes before we got the call," Tennant said. "And we had talked a little bit about how he wanted us to stay safe and I wanted him to stay safe."

“It’s the first time I met either one of the two gentlemen but you feel a sense of responsibility toward them,” Tennant said.

This week, the residual from the Subtropical Storm Alberto is expected to bring in more mudslides and heavy rains. Tennant had told the duo to be careful.

According to WYFF, Smeltzer had worked for news in the region for over a decade, while McCormick joined the NBC affiliate in 2007.

McCormick started out as a reporter with WSPA in Spartanburg, South Carolina. According to the press release, the Florida native was promoted to weekend anchor for the outlet's  6 pm and 11 pm newscasts.

According to his LinkedIn profile, McCormick had worked as a reporter and substitute anchor with KHOG-TV in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for three years before joining WYFF. Prior to that, he served as a writer for WSVN-TV in Miami, Florida.

The release stated that Smeltzer had lived and worked in the Greenville area for over a decade, but originally hailed from Virginia. He started out as a photojournalist with WYFF earlier this year.

“Mike and Aaron were stellar journalists, dedicated to covering news in this market,” said John Humphries, the station's president and general manager. “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,” Humphries said.

According to the Polk County Emergency Management Office, US highway 176 was cordoned off in the area surrounding the accident with the investigation being handled by the North Carolina State Highway Patrol at the time.

On Monday, over two inches of rain fell from the fringes of Alberto, but neither Tennant nor Master Trooper Murico Stephens cited that as the cause of the deaths. As previously stated, Tennant said that the roots of the three-foot diameter were loosened due to the rain-drenched ground. 

The storm made landfall in the Florida panhandle late Monday, bringing strong winds and heavy rainfall to the coastal area which is usually crowded with Memorial Day revelers. Storm Alberto had reached 45 mph in wind speeds and made landfalls near Laguna Beach, according to the 5 pm ET advisory of the National Hurricane Center.

The North Carolina State Highway Patrol will be investigating the incident, according to Tennant.

He called the deaths of McCormick and Smeltzer a "freak of nature".