As journalists, we cover hundreds – maybe thousands – of stories throughout the course of our careers.
We know when a situation might be dangerous. I personally remember dozens of stories I covered, from hostage standoffs to manhunts to severe weather, where I knew I was taking a risk to keep the public informed and acted accordingly to protect my personal safety as best I could.
But very few, if anyone, could have predicted what happened on Memorial Day near Tryon, North Carolina.
WYFF-TV reporter and weekend anchor Mike McCormick and photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer were covering the heavy rain and other effects of the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto when a large tree – no longer tethered to the ground by its water-logged roots – fell onto their station SUV, killing them both.
When rescuers arrived, the vehicle’s engine was still running. The transmission was still in drive. They apparently had no idea what was coming.
— WYFF News 4 (@wyffnews4) May 28, 2018
“All of us at WYFF News 4 are grieving. We are a family and we thank you, our extended family, for your comfort as we mourn and as we seek to comfort the families of Mike and Aaron,” the station said in a statement on its website.
News Director Bruce Barkley told me after I reached out to offer RTDNA’s condolences on behalf of the nation’s broadcast and digital journalists: “Thank you for your kind words. … We are saddened and shocked by the deaths of Mike and Aaron. … It is a tough time for the WYFF 4 newsroom.”
The Hearst-owned station also received messages of support from South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, other public officials and dozens of viewers, including Joe Hindman, who wrote to the station. “Mike’s pleasant personality was always evident in his reporting and news broadcasts,” Hindman wrote. “[My wife and I] are sure Aaron’s professionalism contributed much as well.”
Viewer Patrick Wolf put it another way: “Mike and Aaron … are a part of our family every day! It was such a shock to hear of this sad news.”
The tragedy even impacted the rescuers who rushed to their aid but could not save their lives.
Tryon Fire Chief Geoffrey Tenant told reporters: "It personally affected me a little bit because I had done an interview with Mr. McCormick about 10 minutes before we got the call. And we had talked a little bit about how he wanted us to stay safe and I wanted him to stay safe and of course 10 or 15 minutes later we got the call and it was him and his photographer."
McCormick had worked at the station since 2007, when he joined WYFF-TV from Hearst sister stations KHBS/KHOG in northwestern Arkansas. He was the weekend anchor for the Greenville, South Carolina-based station, but worked during the week as a reporter out of its Spartanburg bureau.
Smeltzer had just joined the WYFF-TV Spartanburg bureau in February, after serving as a photojournalist in the area for more than ten years.
RTDNA’s coverage guidelines for hurricanes and other natural disasters state, “Journalists should keep in mind that their personal safety comes first.”
By all accounts, McCormick and Smeltzer were doing just that. There was no way they could have known that what Tyron Fire Chief Tenant called “a freak of nature” was about to take their lives.
“Our Hearst Television family is grieving today,” a top corporate executive told me this morning.
So is the RTDNA family, along with McCormick’s and Smeltzer’s families, their colleagues, their viewers – and America’s thousands of broadcast and digital journalists.
Correction: We have updated this article to reflect that Tryon is in Polk County just across the North Carolina border, not in South Carolina as previously stated.