South Carolina loses 2 dedicated journalists to “freak of nature”

Editor’s Note: SPJ Region 3 and SPJ South Carolina sends condolences the families, friends and WYFF TV colleagues of anchor and reporter Mike McCormick and photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer who died Monday.

– From USA Today 

By Catherine Rogers and Gabe Cavallaro, The Greenville News

Greenville, SOUTH CAROLINA — Foul weather along the North Carolina-South Carolina border killed a TV station anchor and the photographer who was accompanying him, a South Carolina TV station reported Monday evening.

Mike McCormick
Anchor and reporter Mike McCormick, WYFF-TV

Anchor and reporter Mike McCormick and photographer Aaron Smeltzer, who worked for WYFF-TV, Greenville, South Carolina, were traveling a little before 2:30 p.m. ET on U.S. 176 near Tryon, North Carolina, when a tree fell on their station’s vehicle, WYFF-TV reported. The area is about 25 miles northwest of the TV station.

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

The remnants of Subtropical Storm Alberto are 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.

“Today is a difficult day, and there will be many more ahead.” – WYFF News Director Bruce Barkley

McCormick had worked for the NBC affiliate since 2007, and Smeltzer had worked in news in the region for more than a decade, WYFF said.

Adam Smelter
Photojournalist Adam Smeltzer, WYFF-TV

“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.”

He previously had worked at WSPA-TV, Spartanburg, according to a story on that station’s website.

“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.

U.S. 176 was closed in the area around the accident, and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol was handling the investigation, according to the Polk County Emergency Management Office.

A woman died in a mudslide May 19 not far from the wreck and officials in Polk County were asking people living in vulnerable areas to leave voluntary before the weather got worse.

Neither Tennant nor Master Trooper Murico Stephens of the North Carolina Highway Patrol 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 because of 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.”

Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Catherine Rogers and Gabe Cavallaro on Twitter: @CatGRog and @gabe_cavallaro

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