ROGERSVILLE — One motorist’s body was recovered Thursday afternoon following a lengthy rescue/recovery operation at the site of a massive Hawkins County mudslide that took out a 200-foot section of Route 70-N north of Rogersville.
A second motorist remained hospitalized after he was able to climb down the side of Clinch Mountain to a lower section of highway where he was found by rescuers.
As of Thursday afternoon, the name of the injured driver hadn’t been released, but the deceased motorist was identified as Steven Lawson, 62, of Jonesborough.
Deputies discover the slide
Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Murrell said deputies were initially dispatched around 1 a.m. to fallen trees in the area of Route 70-N near the Cave Springs Road intersection on the side of Clinch Mountain.
Within a short period of time, there were reports of two vehicles driving off an area where a 200-foot section of roadway had collapsed.
Around that time, the injured motorist was discovered, and it was determined that the second motorist, who was later recovered deceased, had driven a 1997 Chevy pickup off the section where the highway had washed away.
“The first victim actually recovered himself,” Murrell said. “He exited his vehicle after it came off the mountain, and we found him down on the next section of roadway below the slide up against a guardrail. That area of Route 70-N snakes up the mountain. It was the middle section of highway that washed out, and the injured victim was able to climb down to that bottom section of highway.”
The injured motorist was transported by Hawkins County EMS to Holston Valley Medical Center, where he was reported in surgery Thursday morning, but in stable condition.
A regionwide response
“It was a tragic event,” Murrell said. “There’s no evidence that this could have been prevented. It was 1 a.m. in the morning, foggy and drizzling. When you’re driving down the road, you’re not expecting the road to be gone.”
Murrell said Lawson’s body was recovered from his vehicle around 11:45 a.m.
Among the rescuers at the scene were the Hawkins County Rescue Squad, Church Hill Rescue Squad, Striggersville VFD, Clinch Valley VFD, Morristown Rescue Squad, Hawkins County EMA, Hawkins County EMS, Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office, TDOT, Tennessee Highway Patrol, the county highway department and several other agencies.
Sixteen members of the Kingsport Fire Department’s USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) team deployed to Hawkins County with the District USAR team from Sullivan, Washington and Greene counties to help with the search and rescue effort.
Authorities had to wait until daylight to launch their rescue effort.
“We were able to reach the deceased victim with our district USAR and a large rotator wrecker,” Murrell said. “It took a couple of hours, once we started the process, to get ropes down there to remove one vehicle, and then the second vehicle was removed and they had to extricate the deceased gentleman.”
A lengthy closure
Route 70-N was closed throughout the rescue operation from Pressmens Home Road to Clinch Valley Road and will remain closed to through traffic for the foreseeable future.
“This will be a long-term road closure,” TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi said Thursday. “TDOT geotechnical engineers are assessing the slope, which is considered to be unstable at this time.”
Hawkins becoming more prone to slides
The mudslide occurred on the south side of Clinch Mountain incline about a mile from an area where heavy rains in 2017 and 2018 were blamed for two slides that kept the road blocked for several weeks.
Hawkins County, which has had an especially wet February, also experienced massive flooding earlier this month, as well as a slide that took out a section of Route 66-N near the Hancock County line and caused that road to be closed for nearly a week.
Last week, Route 66-N was reduced to a single lane between Clinch Valley Road and New Life Road due to a second mudslide. Of the two main roads connecting Rogersville to Hancock County and Sneedville, Route 66-N is down to a single lane near New Life Road, and Route 70-N is closed at and around Cave Spring Road.
Local residents will be able to access their homes, but there is no through traffic on Route 70-N.
From Rogersville, take 11-W west ot Mooresburg and turn north on Route 31 in Sneedville, and then turn east on Route 33 to the Route 70-N intersection at Kyles Ford.
From Kyles Ford, take Route 33 west to Sneedville, then Route 31 south to Mooresburg to the intersection of 11-W, and then east to Rogersville.
Use extreme caution on roadways
More rain is coming and Murrell is asking the public to exercise extreme caution while driving.
“People need to use caution during these heavy rain events,” Murrell said. “We’ve gt a lot of damage to roadways, and the more it rains and washes out, the more damage we’re getting.”
Hawkins County Schools, which have been out since Wednesday due to flooding concerns, will be closed at least through Friday.
Grateful to all agencies involved
“I want to commend all the agencies that responded from start to finish. We had a multitude of agencies, a multitude of support from churches supporting our work crews. At one time we probably had 70-80 responders from different agencies on the scene. Everybody did a magnificent job over there today considering the circumstances,” Murrell said.