Oconaluftee Visitor Center – Major accident in the Smokies

OVC - Mountain farmhouse

It was not a quiet day at Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, yesterday.

When I checked my Facebook page, Lynda Doucette, Supervisory interpretive ranger in the Smokies, had written that Newfound Gap road was closed because of a rock slide near Collins Creek. By the time I got to the Park, the road from Cherokee was one lane because of construction but the rock slide had been cleared up. Great news!

It was quiet for a couple of hours and I helped Ranger Ann Kidd, plot out a backpack in the Hyatt Ridge section of the Park. She was looking to bushwhack to Breakneck Ridge north of Three Forks – looked tough.

I also had a first. I sold three of my books while I was working there. One of the Great Smoky Mountains Association sales assistants learned that I was the author of two hiking guides and started promoting my book, right in the store. I wasn’t complaining and I signed and personalized the books.

And then the accident!

Then at around noon, the park radio exploded with bad news. A motor home had turned over and rolled down the “mountain” three miles south of Newfound Gap.

Seven people were in that RV as it tumbled down. The folks in there must have felt like they were in a washing machine. Now, when a vehicle runs off the road off Newfound Gap, it doesn’t get stopped by a sidewalk or a house in town. It keeps falling. We heard emergency vehicle after vehicle zip past the Visitor Center – Cherokee Tribal EMT, Bryson City, Swain County Rescue – all the emergency services in the surrounding communities.

Newfound Gap closed again at the barrier just north of Smokemont Campgrounds and then we got busy.  Visitors streamed in:

“When are they going to open the road?”

“I have reservations in Gatlinburg.”

“I have to get to Knoxville.”

We had no real idea when the road was going to open so we gave out written instructions on how to get to the Tennessee side of the Park when the road is closed. Suffice it to say that it’s far and complicated.

If you take an Wilderness First Aid course, you’re taught that you don’t just worry about the people who got hurt but also the bystanders. The phone was ringing off the hook from visitors who had heard about the closures and others who confused it with the morning closure.

Dan, a seasonal ranger, called the surrounding town visitor centers and Cherokee Harrah’s Casino to let them know about the road closure. He changed the phone message to reflect what had happened.

OVC - at the farm museumI worked the desk and I encouraged visitors to see things around Oconaluftee.

There’s the Mountain Farm Museum, Mingus Mill and the  Smokemont Church (I bet you didn’t know about that one).

If you want to hike, you can do Mingus Creek Trail to a cemetery, Bradley Fork Loop and of course, the Oconaluftee River Trail. There’s plenty to do right here – you don’t need to go to Cades Cove this afternoon. Some were not convinced.

At 2 P.M., I roved the Farm Museum and River Trail. Plenty of people, since we were sending everyone here. Some were relaxed enjoying the sunshine – thank goodness the weather was on our side. I had 34 visitor contacts.

When I returned a little before 5 P.M., the road was still closed. We heard that the RV had split in two and getting it up to the road was time-consuming.

OVC - WLOS accidentA WLOS truck pulled up in the Visitor Center parking lot. That’s Asheville’s ABC-TV affiliate, getting ready to film a live segment on the accident. You know “If it bleeds, it leads.” I couldn’t resist taking a picture.

No, I don’t have pictures of the accidents. I don’t have a press pass.

So I changed out of my uniform shirt, put on a T-shirt and went home. Later I read that the road reopened at 7 P.M.





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