NATIONAL PARKS:

A wild 48 hours in Great Smoky Mountains

Last Thursday and Friday might not have been the best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In just 48 hours, park rangers assisted in eight separate serious incidents in the park that straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina line. There were visitor injuries after a tornado touch-down, vehicle collisions, river rescues and a harrowing drug bust.

According to a park incident report posted by the National Park Service this morning, it all began in the late afternoon Thursday, June 13, when rangers discovered a 63-year-old woman was stranded on the wrong side of the Little Pigeon River near the park's main visitor entrance. Rescuers were assembled, but before swimmers could get to the woman a strong storm swept through the park, forcing both the rescuers and the woman to shelter in place.

Afterward, rangers and members of the nearby Gatlinburg Fire Department conducted a swift-water rescue of the woman.

At the same time that incident was taking place, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the town of Cosby, Tenn., about 20 miles away.

Ranger Chuck Hester responded by heading to the Cosby campground, located inside the park, to alert campers of the storm and move about two dozen campers to the basement of a nearby maintenance building. The storm was later confirmed as an EF-1 tornado.

"Once it passed, they emerged from the basement to find hundreds of trees down in the campground. Many of the occupied sites had extensive damage and at least one tent was destroyed by falling trees," today's report states. "Due to Hester's quick action, there were no significant injuries reported in the campground."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border in North Carolina, rangers were called to Deep Creek after two juveniles had overturned their inner tubes in the fast-moving water.

One boy was able to reach the shore before rangers arrived, but the second was swept downstream. He eventually escaped the water and was found by a ground team of responders who had hiked through brush for two hours to find him and bring him to safety.

By Friday morning, rangers were back at work evaluating trails and backcountry campsites in the 521,000-acre park, which consistently ranks as one of the most visited in the national parks system, for damage caused by the storm the previous day.

One ranger came across a 53-year-old man who was suffering from a compound leg fracture, spinal injury and broken ribs after being hit by a falling tree the previous afternoon. The man was eventually airlifted to a hospital in Asheville, N.C.

By lunchtime, along a road in another section of the park, Ranger Todd Roessner initiated a traffic stop during which he conducted a search of the vehicle and found a large stash of marijuana and pills.

It was during the search that the vehicle's operator attempted to hide a handgun under the car. Roessner noticed it, hauled the man to the ground and took him into custody.

Also Friday, rangers were called to the Cades Cove swimming area on the Tennessee side of the border to respond to a 63-year-old man who had been pulled out of the water by a passing kayaker. After being attended to by a local ambulance crew, the man was flown by helicopter to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.

Late Friday afternoon brought a motorcycle crash that sent the driver to the hospital. That was followed about two hours later by a vehicle-motorcycle collision that required an helicopter airlift.

By Saturday, things had finally calmed down.

That day, the only action that made the park incident report was a high-risk traffic stop involving a man suspected of stealing a handgun from a parked vehicle. After initially refusing to follow a ranger's commands, the man was taken into custody and felony charges are pending.

The handgun was recovered during the stop.

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