WYFF journalists killed in Polk County left legacy of storytelling and smiles
With heavy hearts, it's an honor to tell you about the our Persons of the Week.
On Memorial day, WYFF journalists Mike McCormick and Aaron Smeltzer died in our own back yard, covering severe weather.
This week all of us in the industry were shaken by something we dread: when people who report the news became the news.
"It is with heavy hearts that we must also report on the tragic deaths of our news colleagues from WYFF," News 13 Anchor Holly Headrick said during a recent newscast.
If it was hard for us to report, you can only imagine what it felt like for News 4 in the Upstate.
"John we're shattered, devastated," said WYFF Anchor Michael Cogdill. "It's not real to us yet."
The men were driving on 176 when a tree toppled onto their vehicle.
"You have a far greater chance of being struck by lightning," Cogdill said. "That old tree so far off the road, the guys were going down the highway and it falls with that exquisitely dreadful timing."
Often, the phrase, "when it rains it pours" transcends weather. Here in the mountains, the deluge has been relentless.
Severe weather underscores the importance of local news coverage. The journalists so committed to storytelling are remembered for their compassion.
"They were so deeply human," Cogdill says.
Just last week Aaron posted a cartoon drawing on Facebook capturing the smiling news gathering duo.
Individually, they brought special skills to every assignment.
"He was a remarkable reporter, one of the best I've ever known," Digital Managing Editor Carla Field told us.
She was sure her dear friend Mike would have his own cooking show one day.
"He loved to host parties, and he was an amazingly good cook," she said, scrolling through pictures of both fun and food enjoyed together. "Clever, amazing, inventive hors d'oeuvres."
Every year, McCormick absolutely owned Halloween.
"They were outstanding Halloween parties." Field said. "He was the host with the most."
Those memories make her hunger for more.
"He had such respect for people and such love for life," she continued.
So it's seems surreal to that Wednesday, she chose a photo for Mike's obituary.
"I picked this one because Mike loved the outdoors," she said of a picture of McCormick with flowers in the background.
The past tense can be profoundly painful.
"This is where I have a hard time talking," she said, taking an long pause as she welled up with emotion. "Because it is such a loss of friendship and such an amazing human being. It's a real tragedy not having him to share life."
Our hearts also go out to WSPA, where Aaron worked for many years. His funeral will be held in his hometown back in Virginia.
Meanwhile, the visitation for McCormick is Friday from 6 - 8 p.m. at Floyd's Greenlawn Chapel in Spartanburg. His funeral is Saturday at 11 a.m. at Central United Methodist Church.
Outside the station, fellow WYFF Photographer Codie Sloan brought out his banjo. He played "I'll Fly Away" in memory of them.
Much like Mike, Aaron's personality took people to a happy place. Aaron and his fiance' recently watched Codie perform with the Mountain Bridge Band.
"That was one of the first connections I made with Aaron, talking about bluegrass gospel music," Codie said. "Contagious smile. He had a smile that could stretch across the newsroom."
Smeltzer had a lot to smile about.
He and Heather were to be married August, one more layer of heartbreak at a place where hearts are shattered.
"It's a trying time not only emotionally thinking about the loss, but we have to work here every day and this was a part of Mike and Aaron," Codie says.
By nature, the news business doesn't stop. The signs of sadness include the flowers in the newsroom and Mike's painfully empty desk.
"But I have seen how this has shattered this place, shattered this family. And we'll never be the same," Cogdill said.
WLOS is just 51 miles from WYFF, yet sometimes we feel oceans apart. The Memorial Day tragedy's a reminder of how close we really are.
When it comes to perspective, sometimes when it rains it pours.