TV Reporter and Cameraman Killed by Falling Tree While Covering Storm Alberto

A news anchor and photojournalist were killed while reporting on Subtropical Storm Alberto Monday in North Carolina. A tree fell on their SUV just minutes after they finished interviewing fire department officials.

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(Photo: WYFF News 4)

WYFF-TV Anchor Mike McCormick and photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer both worked in the Greenville, South Carolina, market for more than a decade, anchor Carol Goldsmith said on air, breaking the news.

"Mike and Aaron were beloved members of our team — our family," Goldsmith said.

The men were driving on U.S. Highway 176 near Tyron in Polk County when the large tree fell on their vehicle, according to North Carolina Highway Patrol Master Trooper Murico Stephens. The TV journalists had just interviewed Tyron Fire Chief Geoffrey Tennant, who said they had told him to be careful with the storm expected to bring more heavy rains and mudslides later in the week. He told them to be careful too.

"Ten minutes later we get the call and it was them," Tennant said at a news conference, on the verge of tears.

Neither Tennant nor Stephens directly blamed the fringes of the subtropical storm, nor the 2 inches of rain it brought with it Monday, for the deaths of the TV journalists. The fire chief said the roots of the 3-foot diameter tree were loosened in the ground and saturated by a week's worth of rain.

The vehicle's engine was still running and the transmission was in drive when crews found it. The men died instantly. Tennant called the deaths a "freak of nature."

A woman died in a mudslide on May 19 not far from the wreck and officials were asking people living in vulnerable areas to voluntarily leave before the weather got worse.

The duo were reporting on Subtropical Storm Alberto, which hit the Florida Panhandle Monday, resulting in heavy rain throughout much of the Southeast. A flash flood watch in the region is expected to remain in effect through Thursday.

McCormick was a weekend anchor for the Greenville station and covered Spartanburg and surrounding areas. He came to the station in April 2007.

Smeltzer worked in Greenville for more than a decade, coming to WYFF-TV in February from a different station in the market.

Both men were in their mid-30s.

The station released a statement, saying, “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.”

On Monday evening, journalists from local newsrooms across the country joined WYFF in paying tribute to the news crew. Anchors on a competing station, WSPA, called the news "heartbreaking." Smeltzer worked for WSPA until recently.

"While we are competitors on the air, Mike and Aaron were our friends, and part of a journalism family. We will all miss them both very much," anchor Gordon Dill said.

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WHNS reporter Derek Dellinger competed with McCormick and Smeltzer, but said he also considered them friends. He called Smeltzer a perfectionist and McCormick a hard worker and nice guy.

“Despite being the competition, I had interactions with (McCormick) both in and out of work, and we would talk about work issues, talk about life — everything, because we were in such a similar position at our respective stations,” Dellinger told the Associated Press, calling him “a good guy” with a warm heart.