A fatal combination of high winds and saturated ground claimed the life of one of the passengers in a car on Newfound Gap Road near the Chimneys Picnic area heading toward Gatlinburg. The victim Tonya Renee Eichler, 39 from Sevierville, Tennessee was killed when large trees fell on top of the car while it was being driven by Jody Simonds also from of Sevierville.
High winds especially in the upper elevations have been buffeting the park since last night and the GSM national parks electronic variable message signs warned drivers of the high wind danger prior to the fatal accident on Newfound Gap Road.
The accident was caused when large trees fell directly onto the front passenger side of the 2003 Nissan Altima crushing and trapping Tonya Renee Eichler. The driver and his daughter who was in the back seat were able exit the car by climbing out of the windows.
National Park Rangers and a Gatlinburg Rescue crew responded quickly to the scene of the accident on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains national park where they found the deceased driver inside the smashed vehicle with downed trees blocking the road.
A passing motorist with a chain saw already had begun cutting the trees in an attempt to free Tonya Renee Eichler who was pronounced dead at the scene. The jaws-of-life were later used to extricate her from the crushed car.
Park rangers closed Newfound Gap Road and rerouted all existing southbound traffic on US 441 back down the mountain to Gatlinburg and the northbound traffic back to Cherokee.
The Simonds’ were transported by Gatlinburg ambulance to The University of Tennessee Medical Center where they were treated and released and Tonya Renee Eichler body was transported to Ft. Sanders Sevier Medical Center.
Newfound Gap Road was closed and crews started the difficult task of cleanup and had to check the balance of the roadway at daylight for any other potential hazards before reopening it back up.
Because of the high winds, various roadways have been closed as downed trees, limbs, power lines, and vehicular accidents were cleaned up in and around the Great Smoky Mountains national park.
In the Cades Cove section of the GSMNP, Forge Creek Road and Sparks Lane were also closed due to storm debris in the roadway.
Story updated with corrections 1/25/10 1:15 pm