Aaron Smeltzer: A Tribute to the WYFF Photojournalist

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Aaron Smeltzer, an Emmy award winning photojournalist for WYFF News 4 in South Carolina, was killed with anchor/reporter Mike McCormick after a tree fell on their SUV while they were reporting on Subtropical Storm Alberto. A local fire chief, who had given the men an interview only 10 minutes before the tragedy, called it a “freak of nature” accident.

The men’s television station confirmed the news that both had died in the tragedy, writing on May 28, 2018, “WYFF News 4 anchor Mike McCormick and WYFF News 4 photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer died Monday when a tree fell on their SUV.” According to NPR, both men were “out covering Subtropical Storm Alberto.”

Their station revealed that “the accident happened on Highway 176 in Polk County while they were covering the rain impact in that area.”

Here’s what you need to know:

1. The Large Tree Crashed on the Men’s Car as It Was Still Moving

Tryon Fire Chief Geoffrey Tennant said in a news conference that the large tree collapsed on the men’s vehicle as it was still moving. According to WSPA-TV, the “two WYFF employees were hit by a tree while driving southbound.” The television station reported that they “were in Polk County covering the dangerous weather conditions there.”

WSPA-TV reported that the two men were “traveling south on Highway 176 when a tree fell and hit the vehicle.” Tennant said in a news conference: “What has happened is that some time around 2:30 this afternoon, we were dispatched for a tree down on a motor vehicle with people trapped.”

Rescue vehicles rushed to the scene, but it was too late to save Smeltzer or McCormick.

“The ground of course is saturated,” the fire official said. “It has been for a significant period of time. It was a large tree. It sat back off the road a good ways… it was probably three foot in diameter. The vehicle was apparently in motion. When we got to the vehicle, the engine was running, and the transmission was in drive.”

He added: “It was just a matter that the tree roots system had failed, and the tree came down. There was no evidence at the scene that it was a slide. The ground up there is unstable.” The rescue worker said he “had never seen an event like this one.” The rescue worker added that he had done an interview with McCormick about 10 minutes before and they had each expressed that they hoped the other would “stay safe.”

2. Smeltzer Was a Country Music & Baseball Fan Originally From Virginia

Smeltzer’s Facebook profile reads, “Taker of photos, Shooter of video. I love Heather. (4x) Emmy Award Winning Photojournalist.”

The WYFF television story reported that “Aaron shot news for more than a decade in our region. He is originally from Tazewell, Virginia, and graduated from Radford University with a degree in broadcast video communications. He was an avid baseball fan.”

He was also described as loving “traditional country music- including Keith Whitley, Randy Travis and Alabama.” According to WSPA-TV, “Smeltzer previously worked at WSPA-TV covering stories here in the Upstate before joining WYFF earlier this year.”

3. McCormick Graduated From the University of Miami & Had Rescue Dogs

The station reported in its story announcing McCormick’s death that he was a lover of fresh food and rescue dogs.

“Mike graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in broadcast journalism and theatre arts. He had two dogs, both adopted from the Spartanburg Humane Society. When Mike was not reporting or anchoring the news, you would find him in the kitchen. He loved using local, fresh ingredients from the Hub City Farmers’ Market,” the station reported.

4. Colleagues Paid Tribute to the Men, Recalling Their Talent & Kindness

Reporter Darius Johnson recalled Smeltzer’s helpful personality, writing, “My heart just dropped. I just realized, I met Aaron Smeltzer during the C-130 plane crash. He offered to assist with my live shot and we talked for at least 10 minutes. Didn’t know one another from a can of paint but that’s what stuck out and kept us talking.”

Co-worker Allyson Powell wrote on Twitter, “I have no words. You will not meet a kinder, more professional, joyous and giving person than @MikeMcCWYFF I am better for knowing him.”

Amy Wood, of 7 News, paid tribute, writing on Twitter, “They were sweet friends. They were talented colleagues. Now they are gone… far too soon. Praying for all who loved Aaron Smeltzer and Mike McCormick ???? WYFF news crew dies after tree falls on vehicle in Polk Co.”

Ashley Minelli, an anchor and reporter for Fox Carolina News, wrote on Twitter, “Still in shock over this news. I never had the pleasure of meeting Aaron Smeltzer but I worked alongside Mike McCormick in the field many times.”

Gitzel Puente, a reporter, wrote, “I can’t imagine what @wyffnews4 is going through right now. ? Every day, we go out and report the news not thinking we face dangers just like anyone else.. journalists in Alberto’s path, please be safe out there! Prayers for Aaron Smeltzer and Mike McCormick ?? ”

5. Smeltzer Exhibited a Sense of Humor on Facebook

On Facebook, Smeltzer sometimes shared humorous posts. “Never let anyone treat you like a VO/SOT. You are a Pckg,” read one graphic he shared. A photo showed him clowning around with a tennis racket.