GATLINBURG, Tennessee — Crews on Tuesday recovered the bodies of two workers from the rubble of a wastewater-treatment plant wall that collapsed earlier in the day, while officials continued to investigate what caused the breach that released sewage into a rain-swollen river at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The holding tank wall collapsed about 9 a.m. at the plant in the tourist town of Gatlinburg near the Little Pigeon River. Crews used jackhammers and heavy equipment to dig through the collapsed wall, and at 5:30 p.m., Gatlinburg's fire chief announced that they had recovered the bodies of John Eslinger, 53, and Don Storey, 44, both of the Sevierville area.
A Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman said that a mix of storm- and waste-water, but not solid waste, was flowing directly into the river. The size of the spill had not been determined but officials with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency estimated earlier Tuesday it was between 1.5 and 3.2 million gallons.
Gatlinburg's utility director said the treatment facility should be repaired soon but he could not give a date.
Tisha Calabrese-Benton, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said the failure occurred in an equalization basin, a large tank that is used during times of heavy rain to regulate the amount of water going into the treatment plant.
Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said the search area for the workers initially included areas downstream but later was concentrated on the plant property.
City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle said relatives of both workers were kept in seclusion at the scene to await the outcome of the rescue effort.
"Our hearts truly go out to the families," Ogle said.
The Mountain Press newspaper reported that the storage basin is 70 feet wide, 40 feet tall and has reinforced concrete walls that are 12 inches thick. Photos show a blown-out wall of the structure. Ogle said the 1 million-gallon capacity tank was about 85 percent filled after a night of torrential rain.
"The heavy rain last night probably had a bearing on the situation," she said.
Ogle and Gatlinburg Utilities Director Dale Phelps said the plant has had a good operating record. Phelps said that there were other employees at the plant when the wall collapsed. He declined to say what they told him happened.
A statement from the city of Gatlinburg said there was a mudslide about a mile from the facility around 1 a.m., several hours before the collapse at the plant. Officials said the exact cause of the collapse was not yet determined.
"No one knows what happened, really. It's all guesswork right now," said Jim Davis, spokesman for the city of Gatlinburg.
Chicago-based Veolia Water, the plant operator for more than 15 years, said in a statement it was deeply saddened by the deaths of two of its employees.
The cause of the plant breakdown was still under investigation, Calabrese-Benton said.
A National Weather Service spokesman said the nearby national park headquarters recorded more than 2.62 inches of rain in the 24 hours before 7 a.m. Tuesday.
The river is normally small and shallow enough to wade across but rises rapidly and moves swiftly after a heavy rain. It originates in the park and flows north from Gatlinburg, the main park entrance, to Pigeon Forge. Both cities are top destinations for tourists.
"It's usually a pretty little mountain stream," park spokesman Bob Miller told The Associated Press by phone. He said the water looked the same above and below the spill site, "the color of coffee with cream."
"The sewage flowed under (the road) and straight into the Little Pigeon," Miller said.
Greg Nichols, 47, routinely parks at the Smokies' welcome center and walks to his job near the site of the spill. He said he had parked his car around 9 a.m. and was walking when he heard a crashing sound.
"I thought the trees were coming down. It was really loud and it lasted probably 30 seconds," he said. "It was like a 'dozer dragging a big piece of equipment."
He couldn't see where the sound was coming from, but as he continued walking he could see two men looking at the wastewater treatment plant. It was not clear whether those were the two missing workers.
Calabrese-Benton said her department contacted communities downstream, including Pigeon Forge, to avoid contact with the river. She said where the spill occurred had previously been under an advisory for bacteria in the water so signs were already in place.
"Obviously, we are not going to want people to have contact with the water until we know what's going on, until we can sample and determine what cleanup is needed," Calabrese-Benton said.
Eric Brackins, assistant city manager for the city of Pigeon Forge, said the city draws its municipal water supply from Douglas Lake and the French Broad River and the supply there is not directly affected.