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Ga. man dead after tree falls on vehicle on the Spur

Authorities said a man from Georgia died after a burst of heavy rain downed trees and caused small rock slides along the Spur.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park emergency responders and maintenance personnel reopened the Spur Thursday evening after a man died following a sudden heavy downpour that knocked over trees and caused small rock slides along the road. 

According to authorities, the man died after a tree fell on his Honda Odyssey on the southbound side of the Spur/U.S. 441 between the Welcome Center and Gatlinburg. 

That victim was identified as Barry Willard Wallace, 73, from Cedartown, Ga. Rangers said he died from his injuries and was the only person in the vehicle. Authorities have notified his family. 

Rangers called it a 'series of incident sites,' saying downed trees, slides and flash flooding occurred at multiple spots along the road. Other vehicles were damaged by falling rocks. 

Multiple agencies worked to respond and clear the Spur, including the Tennessee Dept. of Transportation, Gatlinburg police and fire, and GSMNP rangers.

The northbound side reopened just before 7 p.m., and the southbound side reopened at 8:50 p.m. The GSMNP said there is still a single-lane closure through the affected areas on the southbound side near Flatbranch.

The closure happened from the southbound traffic light #10 near Conner Heights Road in Pigeon Forge going toward Gatlinburg, according to the city of Pigeon Forge.

A detour from Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg was set up at Traffic light #8, which is Dollywood Lane.

Rangers said a concentrated downpour of rain around 4 inches over the period of 30 minutes caused water to rapidly rise and destabilize the slopes. They said flash flooding concerns are over but will be assessing the slopes to identify unstable areas.

One ranger said he had never seen that kind of concentration of rain in such a tight cell generate that kind of moisture in such a short time.

Dana Soehn, a spokesperson for the park, told 10News on Friday that many of the conditions occurred in areas that were burned during the 2016 wildfires. 

"Many of the small slides and downed trees were along slopes affected by the 2016 wildfires," Soehn said.

The heavy levels of rain that were a major factor in causing the sudden conditions are considered rare, Soehn continued in an email. 

"The rock slides, downed trees, and flash flood conditions resulted from a combination of steep slopes and intense rainfall," she said. "The area received over 4 inches of heavy rainfall in just a little over an hour. This was a very rare rain event, especially at low elevations." 

But when the rain does fall like that, it can be damaging. 

"While rare, these high-intensity storms often bring down trees and rocks along steep slopes and overwhelm drainage structures along trails and roads, resulting in flash flood conditions," Soehn explained.

A viewer submitted this image of a tree down along one section of the Spur Thursday that led to a crash.

Credit: Submitted

The Gatlinburg Police Department posted on Facebook that Dudley Creek By-Pass and Ridge Road were also closed due to rock slides.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol is assisting with the fatal crash investigation. 

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