Smoky Mountain visitors recall violent storm

Associated Press
Ashley Hacker, of Franklin, Tenn., pauses, Saturday, July 7, 2012, in describing the ordeal she went through after the car she was traveling in with her husband and 12-year-old son Noah, right, was struck by falling trees during a powerful storm that tore through Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Townsend, Tenn., on Thursday evening. Rangers will soon reopen part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park after violent storms caused the park to close. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
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TOWNSEND, Tenn. (AP) — In a matter of minutes, a violent summer storm turned Ashley and Scott Hacker's idyllic trip to the Great Smoky Mountains into a terrifying scene.

The couple was teaching their son to fly fish Thursday when the winds suddenly picked up. The family jumped into their car for safety and as they started to drive away, trees began toppling around them. A large branch crashed through car's sun roof, narrowly missing the Hackers' 12-year-old son.

"All I know is that we were so lucky that day, because there were people who weren't as lucky," Ashley Hacker said. "It was fine, it was beautiful, and then it wasn't."

Two people inside the park were killed and two others died in Chattanooga when the winds overturned a double-decker pontoon boat on Chickamauga Lake. Several other people were injured.

Officials reopened a main road and several campgrounds Saturday at the popular Cades Cove section of the park, which is located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

Ashley Hacker was shaking as she retold her family's survival story. She said Noah had made his first cast when the winds began to howl. The family retreated to their car and they weren't more than 50 yards down the road when trees began to fall.

The branch that crashed through the extended sun roof tore their son's T-shirt, but he was not hurt.

"The branches were up against our car and there was more falling and people were trying to get to us but they couldn't, so I kicked and I kicked until I got the door open. If nothing else, I had to get him out of there," Ashley Hacker said.

Two other nearby cars were hit by boulders and rocks, but no one inside the cars was hurt.

After a deluge, the Hackers began walking up the road, but turned back when they heard someone say a motorcyclist had been killed up ahead. The other deaths in the park occurred when a tree fell into a swimming hole. The dead included a 41-year-old Tennessee man.

The Hackers said they had to gather firewood because the temperatures dropped after the storm passed.

"We went into survival mode," she said. "We gathered as much as we could ... and people all started coming to that area because they saw the fire. We had about 20 in that area all banded together."

The family was visiting from Franklin, Tenn., about 175 miles west of the park.

Most of the 400 to 500 campers who weathered the storm at Cades Cove decided to leave Friday, though a few dozen remained a day later.

The area affected by the storm draws as many as 40,000 tourists a weekend during the summer.

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