Betty Miner was standing in her kitchen getting ready to fix supper last Friday when the pictures on her walls fell to the ground.
“I heard a sound and ran to where I heard it and that’s when the mud came up and splattered the window,” said Miner. “I thought an airplane had crashed right next to us or on top of the house.”
A 30-foot-high wave of mud and rock screamed by at 30 miles per hour, picking up any debris that lay in its half-mile path down the mountainside. While only four homes were damaged and no one was injured, Miner and her neighbors in Maggie Valley’s Rich Cove area were forced to evacuate after dark.
Teenager Shane Bryan was in his house watching TV when the slide hit.
“We grabbed the first things we saw and then they came to get us in the four-wheelers,” Bryan said.
The slide occurred around 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 5. Emergency responders were on-hand in less than a half hour beginning the work of evacuating residents from the path of danger.
Tammy Jones was trapped on the second story of her house after her ground floor was buried by debris.
“I heard it coming and knew what it was, but I didn’t have time to do anything but stand still,” Jones said.
Jones and her four dogs were eventually freed by rescue workers who dug their way in to a door on the ground floor to get her out and take her and the dogs down the mountain.
Cam Sutton said the slide sounded like “thunder coming down the mountain” and Tammy Rich described walking through mud up to her waist to check on her family members.
It was a night that none of them will ever forget.
In the hours after the slide, the Haywood County office of the American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at the Maggie Valley Methodist Church where eight residents from the landslide area slept Friday night. Others stayed with family or at hotels.
Ultimately, the area endangered by the slide included 13 homes lived in year-round, and another 24 that are second-homes and were unoccupied.
According to residents, on Saturday emergency management staff and staff from the North Carolina Geological Survey told them a retaining wall at Ghost Town gave way higher up the mountain and was likely the cause, but that they would continue to flesh out the details.
Church volunteers and area businesses helped sustain the displaced residents by furnishing meals. By Sunday, the shelter had closed and everyone had found housing elsewhere, but emergency management officials informed residents that anyone past the 600 block of Rich Cove Road should not return to their houses because the land above them was still unstable, posing the risk of a second, possibly even larger slide yet to come.
Betty Miner explained what she felt after the event.
“I’m just shocked that this could have happened,” Miner said. “Last night I finally slept. It’s a shock to the system and kind of a feeling of loss.”
Residents were briefed again Sunday night by emergency management personnel who had conducted a fly-over of the area accompanied by Rick Wooten, geologist from the North Carolina Geological Survey.
After reviewing the site from the area, Wooten estimated that 12,000 to 16,000 tons of material was still unstable at the top of the slide. With the weather report predicting four inches of snow on Wednesday this week, the area still presented a threat.
Some residents below the 600 block of Rich Cove Rd. chose not to leave their homes. Tammy Rich, who lives at the Sutton family home, wanted to stay on the mountain.
Rich said she and her relatives were aware of the danger the slide presented because they’ve lived with it for years.
“They told us stuff we already knew,” said Rich. “We knew there were problems with the retaining walls, because it’s happened three times before.”
On Monday, officials gathered the residents one more time at the Methodist Church to brief them on the situation. The shock and relief they had felt in the days following the event had begun to give way to a pressing need for clarity.
“The information stream has really slowed down,” Jones said. “We don’t know any more now than we did on Saturday.”
Cam Sutton, whose house was cut off by the slide had a simple question for Wooten.
“The cause?” Sutton said. “Do we know the cause?”
Wooten said determining the exact cause of the slide would take time. There were many factors, he said. Missing from his presentation this time around was any direct reference to Ghost Town’s retaining wall, however.
“This is an area that’s failed before. Twice at least and probably more than that,” Wooten told the crowd.
Using contour maps of the area showing the path of the slide, he explained the risks presented by the material still hanging from the top of the mountain.
But the residents gathered wanted concrete answers to practical questions. When will we know for sure what happened? When can we go home?
For Tammy Jones and Kurt Biedler, there is no going home. The foundation of their house was breached and their water system went down the mountain.
“I have no patience left,” Biedler said. “We’re 72 hours into an emergency situation and our house is not livable. The lack of information is unacceptable.”
Jones and others wondered why the owner of Ghost Town in Sky Amusement Park hadn’t shared any information with residents about what had happened.
“If it was my retaining wall and it fell on my neighbor, my insurance adjuster would be down there immediately interviewing the neighbors,” Jones said.
Jones and Biedler bought their house in May after moving from Savannah.
Jones said she has given up on returning to her house in the near future.
“I’m not interested in living below that,” Jones said. “It’s like a ticking time bomb.”
Cam Sutton, a lifelong resident who had to walk through the woods carrying his children during the Friday evacuation, was furious that Ghost Town’s owners have not met with residents yet.
“Ghost Town hasn’t been to one meeting. The community helped each other and stuck together, but the cause of this hasn’t shown up yet,” Sutton said.
Ghost Town’s CEO and a hired engineer have been involved in meetings with the county and state geologists.
“First and foremost we are very thankful and grateful no one was hurt,” Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said in a phone interview.
Sutton said he wants Ghost Town to make right the situation he believes it has caused.
“I would expect them to clean up the whole mess,” Sutton said.
Kim Czaja, executive director of the Haywood County Red Cross, told residents gathered at the church her staff would begin case management with people displaced by the slide on Tuesday morning.
“This is a long-term effort but right now our priority is your immediate concerns,” Czaja.
Czaja said she her staff would focus on assessing what displaced residents need and then would work to identify what resources may be available to them.
Tammy Rich spoke for the rest of the Suttons on Rich Cove Road.
“We’re just gonna ride out the storm,” said Rich. “What can you do?”