‘A horrible, horrible night’: Woman recalls storm and aftermath at Abrams Creek
Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Cooper was one of several people trapped at Abrams Creek campground when Thursday’s storms descended on Blount County. She administered first aid to an injured 7-year-old girl; she gave emergency personnel the use of her Chevy Tahoe and its OnStar communications; she provided comfort and opened the cabin she shares with her husband, Knoxville podiatrist Dr. Ivan Cooper, to a friend of one woman killed at the Abrams Creek swimming hole by a falling tree.
On Friday, Cooper and her friends and family were still coming to terms with it all.
“We didn’t go into shock until this morning,” Cooper told The Daily Times. “It was a horrible, horrible night, just surreal. Abrams Creek will be different when I go there next time.”
Cooper and her husband retreat to their mountain getaway, located on Top of the World off of Happy Valley Road, whenever they have the opportunity, she said. It’s not an elaborate dwelling — “We don’t have city lights or running water, but we enjoy not hearing traffic” — and this holiday week, they brought with them several friends. When Thursday afternoon’s temperatures approached 100 degrees, the ladies decided to take their dogs to the Abrams Creek swimming hole, seven minutes from Cooper’s cabins.
“That’s what we were doing when the wind came up so fast and furious,” Cooper said. “We didn’t think much of it at the time. One of us said, ‘You hear that? That’s a tree breaking. So a tree does make a sound in the woods!’”
Unaware that the full fury of the storm was just over the ridge, they strolled over to the Abrams Creek campground. The winds picked up again a few minutes later; as Cooper and her friends tried to get their bearings, they her cries for help from the swimming hole. An elderly man told them his 7-year-old granddaughter had been trapped beneath the water by a falling tree; her parents, grandmother and two other women were in the water when the tree collapsed onto the swimming hole.
“By the time we got down there, someone was carrying (the 7-year-old) back up to us,” Cooper said. “I knew she was injured; I immediately knew she had a broken arm. We went up and put her in the bathroom and I told them to keep it together, that she would be OK.”
When she was first pulled from the water, the girl was unresponsive, Cooper said; however, her mother performed CPR despite having broken bones in her arm and possibly her hands from the tree’s impact.
“It’s unbelievable what happens when your adrenaline gets going,” said Cooper, who checked on the family Friday morning and was planning to visit them Friday afternoon.
After securing the girl on the floor of the campground’s bathroom, Cooper ran to her Tahoe. Cell phone service was unavailable to virtually everyone in the area, but Cooper remembered her OnStar. She immediately told the OnStar operator about the crisis and asked for the dispatch of all available fire, EMS, sheriff’s office and first responder units.
“I went back and was trying to take care of (the girl), trying to get her out of shock, and my two friends ran down to the swimming hole to see what they could do,” Cooper said. “The (father) was apparently stuck under a tree with a possible broken back, and one of the other women wasn’t responding well. I got my car up to the bathroom and carefully put (the girl) in there and wrapped her with jackets and blankets, and went on to the ranger station.”
At the swimming hole, 41-year-old Rachael Burkhart, a medical records employee with Cornerstone of Recovery in Louisville, had been pulled to the bank. According to Cooper, Burkhart had a weak pulse, but her injuries were grave. She died 30 minutes later.
“They tried everything they could — mouth-to-mouth, chest compressions; they were holding her when she left,” Cooper said.
At Cornerstone of Recovery, word of Burkhart’s death was met with shock on Friday. A grief counselor was on standby to provide assistance to the woman’s co-workers, and Cornerstone President and CEO Dan Caldwell released a statement about the tragedy:
“The Cornerstone family is shocked and saddened by the loss of Rachael. The nature of our work at Cornerstone creates close bonds and a tragedy like the loss of Rachael hits hard. Our response will be to rely on the comfort we find from our spiritual culture and our connections with each other. In the end Rachael was doing exactly what she wanted to do, enjoying the bounty of the mountains with her friends. Our hearts, thoughts and prayers are extended to Rachael’s family.”
Emergency personnel turning off of Happy Valley Drive onto Abrams Creek Road could only go a quarter-mile before downed trees stopped their progress, Cooper said. First responders and paramedics made their way to the campground on foot, and Cooper’s Tahoe quickly became a command post/triage station. Spotty communication meant her OnStar system was more reliable, and emergency workers relied on it to relay with the Blount County Rescue Squad and Blount County Fire Department.
“Lifestar couldn’t get in, so they took my car as far as they could go with all of the patients until they were stopped by the trees,” Cooper said. “Then they switched to stretchers and walked them out to where the ambulances were waiting on Abrams Creek Road. “The first responders were just phenomenal.”
After the injured were evacuated, Park Service personnel brought in heavy equipment to remove the trees from the roadway. By the time bulldozers pushed through to the parking area, Cooper said, it was 1 a.m. They took Burkhart’s friend with them back to the cabin, where her husband arrived to retrieve her shortly thereafter.
Friday morning, the cleanup began. Cooper has yet to venture back down to Abrams Creek, and the events of the night before weigh heavy on her mind.
“It was just horrific,” she said. “Last night, it was all adrenaline. Now, I’m nervous, and I tear up when I think about it. And my friend can’t do anything but cry.”
They never knew Burkhart, but her death will affect them just as powerfully as it does Burkhart’s friends and co-workers. But the shock and grief wouldn’t prevent any of them from doing it all over again, Cooper said.
“We don’t run from people who need help, but there’s an aftershock for all of us,” she said. “I’m a little shaky, but overall I feel good. The people who were severely injured, who were just coming in to have a good time, this is going to be a good ending for them. For Rachael and my two friends who administered the CPR, their ending isn’t as good.”