The tragedy left a widow and three young children fatherless.
Joseph Drewnoski was inspecting a rail line near Black Mountain in McDowell County that morning at 2 a.m., when a mudslide came shooting down the mountain. It took emergency workers five hours to recover his body from the rubble, mud and debris.
The 32-year-old was an assistant foreman for Norfolk Southern’s engineering department. Drewnoski worked for the railroad for about eight years. Track maintenance and repairs were a key part of his job.
Drewnoski was traveling the line with a co-worker to check the site of a mudslide that had come down on the track. Drewnoski had gotten out of the specialized rail-running truck, which can drive on railroad tracks, when another landslide came down the mountain.
His coworker was still inside the truck. It was knocked off the track and that man survived. However, Drewnoski died.
Responders from McDowell County received an emergency call at 3 a.m. and arrived on site with fire and emergency dispatch personnel. However, it took until 7:30 a.m. to dig Drewnoski’s body out of the mudslide.
The company had other workers in the field that night, and landslides covering sections of the track were not an uncommon during heavy storms, according to Robin Chapman, a spokesperson for the railroad.
“It’s not an unusual occurrence in a heavy rain situation,” said Chapman. “Inspecting lines was part of (Drewnoski’s) job.”
The fatal incident has sparked an investigation by Norfolk Southern as well as the Federal Railroad Administration, which is standard policy when a railroad worker is killed. The administration currently has two inspectors on site accompanied by an inspector with the N.C. Department of Transportation.
A Federal Railroad spokesman wrote in an email that the administration would not comment on the investigation while it was ongoing. The final report on the incident could take as long as a year to produce and the agency can implement penalties if fault is found.
Drewnoski was a native of Florida and has lived in Haywood County for the past six years. He left behind a wife, two sons and a daughter. An obituary remembers him as a loving husband and father.
“He loved spending time with his family and especially enjoyed sharing the Star Wars Trilogy, Boy Scouts, and volunteering at The Open Door (Soup Kitchen) with his sons,” the obituary read. “Joe loved the outdoors, enjoyed going fishing and hunting, and was also an avid reader and Duke basketball fan.”
Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. on Friday, May 10, at Grace Episcopal Church in the Mountains. Burial will follow at Green Hill Cemetery. The family will receive friends from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday evening at Wells Funeral Home in Waynesville.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to The Open Door Soup Kitchen, 32 Commerce Street, Waynesville, NC 28786.