Death of child in Great Smoky Mountains campground was 11th tree fall fatality in park

·6 min read

Death by tree fall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a rare occurrence but has been happening more frequently over the past two decades, according to park records.

A large red maple tree fell shortly after midnight on July 27 in the Elkmont Campground in the Smokies, a few miles south of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, killing a 7-year-old girl from Georgia, according to the National Park Service.

The park has said the tree was 2 feet in diameter but has released few other details about the tragedy, including the age and health of the tree and whether it was known to have been weakened in some way or whether other trees in the campground are at risk of falling.

The Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park has about 220 sites. It is the largest of the 10 campgrounds in the Smokies.
The Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park has about 220 sites. It is the largest of the 10 campgrounds in the Smokies.

Smokies spokesperson Dana Soehn said while this is the first time a tree has fallen on a tent in the park, it’s the 11th time someone has been killed in the Smokies by a tree fall.

“Deaths related to falling trees or limbs account for about 2% of total recorded deaths in the park. It's an incredibly rare and tragic occurrence and accounts for the first-ever fatality caused by a tree falling on a tent in park history,” Soehn said.

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With 14.1 million visitors, 2021 marked the most visitors ever for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as camping increased 40% in "frontcountry" camping areas, and 20% in backcountry areas.
With 14.1 million visitors, 2021 marked the most visitors ever for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as camping increased 40% in "frontcountry" camping areas, and 20% in backcountry areas.

The Great Smokies cover more than a half-million acres of heavily forested, rugged terrain sweeping across the border of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. It is the most-visited national park, with 14.1 million visitors in 2021, who come for the stunning mountain scenery, hiking trails, waterfalls, backpacking, fishing, and camping among other pursuits.

The visits to the wilderness area sometimes turn deadly. There have been about 490 deaths on record in the Smokies since it was established in 1934, Soehn said.

The most common cause of death is non-motorcycle motor vehicle accidents, which account for 32% of all fatalities, followed by plane crashes (13%), drowning (13%), heart attack (12%), and motorcycle/moped accidents (8%).

Black bear attacks account for two deaths in the park.

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Where were other deadly tree falls?

The first recorded death by a tree fall in the Smokies was Aug. 20, 1934, when Charlie Lasater, a Civilian Conservation Corps worker, was killed, according to park records. The CCC provided most of the labor that went into the construction of the park during the Great Depression.

The next three recorded tree-fall deaths also involved motor vehicles, including one in 1973 on Clingmans Dome Road, one in 1985 on the Foothills Parkway, and one in 1989 on Newfound Gap Road.

Cars line Clingmans Dome Road in the Smokies in 2019.
Cars line Clingmans Dome Road in the Smokies in 2019.

In July 2001, a woman was killed after a tree struck her while she was hiking the Middle Prong Trail.

In January 2010, trees fell on a car on Newfound Gap Road near Chimneys Picnic Area, killing a woman.

On July 5, 2012, two people were killed by tree falls during a “strong wind event storm.” A man was killed while riding in a car on Little River Road and a woman was killed in Abrams Creek.

In December 2018, a hiker was killed by a tree fall on Porters Creek Trail.

On Aug. 1, 2019, Barry W. Wallace, 73, or Cedartown, Georgia, was killed on the southbound Spur when a tree fell on a vehicle during a “heavy rainstorm event.”

The most popular of the park’s 10 front-country campgrounds is Elkmont, which has 220 sites, mostly for tents, nestled among towering trees along the Little River. It is perhaps most well-known as the perfect viewing spot for the annual emergence of synchronous fireflies, which draw thousands each spring for the flickering light show.

Soehn said park rangers “are still compiling information to complete the Emergency Services report,” about the tree fall.

Visitors get ready to watch the synchronous fireflies in Elkmont Campround Jun 6, 2022 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Visitors get ready to watch the synchronous fireflies in Elkmont Campround Jun 6, 2022 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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While there had been some rainstorms the day before the Elkmont tree fall, according to the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tennessee, there were no weather events that night or just past midnight on July 27. Park rangers responded at about 12:30 a.m. July 27 to the emergency call after a tree fell on a tent.

The closest weather station to Elkmont is the Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Airport, said NWS meteorologist Mike Hotz.

Just after midnight “they had calm winds, temperature around 75 degrees and about 10 miles visibility,” he said. “There was no rain. They were measuring no wind whatsoever, so 0 mph.”

Hotz said there were some showers and storms during the previous afternoon. “By early evening it was pretty much clear."

On July 21, there was heavy rain, which dropped 1-3 inches across the Smokies, according to a park news release, and caused flooding and road damage in the Greenbrier area, northeast of Gatlinburg. The park closed roads, picnic areas, and campsites in the wake of that storm.

Falling trees have been fatal in other areas recently. On June 17, New York City firefighter Casey Skudin, 45, was killed on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville when a tree crushed the car he was driving.

His wife, Angela Skudin, and their two children were injured but survived. Angela Skudin filed a wrongful death against the private attraction on July 15, claiming gross negligence. She alleges Biltmore knew the tree was “rotted” and had installed steel cables to support the massive American beech.

The remaining portion of the tree that fell on the Biltmore Estate on June 17, killing NYC firefighter Casey Skudin.
The remaining portion of the tree that fell on the Biltmore Estate on June 17, killing NYC firefighter Casey Skudin.

On Aug. 14, 2021, a child was killed when the car they were riding in was struck by a tree on U.S. 276 in Pisgah National Forest near Brevard. Three family members were critically injured. The U.S. Forest Service has denied a Citizen Times Freedom of Information request for the health study performed on the tree in the wake of the fatality. There was no storm or other notable weather event that day.

Two TV news crew members with WYFF-4 out of Greenville, South Carolina, were killed in May 2018 when a tree fell on their news vehicle in Polk County. Anchor and reporter Mike McCormick and photographer Aaron Smeltzer were traveling on U.S. 176 near Tryon when a tree landed on their vehicle as they were covering a subtropical storm, Alberto.

Karen Chávez is Content Coach/Investigations Editor for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Tips? Call 828-712-6316, email, KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or follow on Twitter @KarenChavezACT.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Child killed by tree in Great Smokies was 11th tree fall fatality