The TV news reporter killed by a falling tree Monday in North Carolina was a University of Miami graduate who cut his teeth as a writer for South Florida's fast-paced newscast at WSVN-7.
Mike McCormick, 36, and photographer Aaron Smeltzer were both killed when the tree fell on their SUV in Tryon, N.C., a small town about 90 miles west of Charlotte, while they were covering severe rain.
McCormick and Smeltzer, 35, worked for WYFF-4, based in Greenville, South Carolina, just across the border from Tryon.
"All of us at WYFF 4 are grieving,” said the station's news director, Bruce Barkley. “We thank you for your comfort as we mourn. We ask that you keep Mike and Aaron's families in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.”
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McCormick was a Floridian who hailed from Redington Beach and attended high school in St. Petersburg. His first TV gig was on a community-access show run by his school district.
He attended the University of Miami in the early 2000s, taking journalism classes during the day and writing copy for WSVN's newscast in the evening.
Quiet and even-keeled, McCormick thrived at a station known for developing talent in one of the country's most demanding news markets. With late-breaking news, he might have just minutes to research and churn out copy for the anchors.
"We were all low-paid writers just trying to make it in the next step of our careers," said Andre Senior, a former co-worker who is now a news anchor with KTVU in San Francisco. "We started in one of the most intense places work — but it served us well. WSVN was like where we went to get our master's degree."
Said Alex DiPrato, a former UM classmate and co-worker and now reporter for WHDH in Boston: "It was real-life experience — what we were learning in the classroom, we were actually doing."
Longtime WSVN news anchor Craig Stevens recalled gently teasing McCormick about needing to come out of his shell. And when McCormick landed his first gig — at a station in Fayetteville, Arkansas — he sent Stevens some of his clips.
"He was great. He was terrific. It was so much fun to watch him grow professionally," Stevens said on Monday night. "He really found his voice and was doing so incredibly well."
In Arkansas, he won awards for investigative reports on identity theft. He went on to WYFF in South Carolina, where he was known for his love of cooking, and animals — he had two dogs, both adopted from the local humane society.
On the air, McCormick was nominated for Emmy awards for a story titled "Are You Too Fat For Your Car?" and "Surprise on the Diamond," a piece on a U.S. airman who surprised his mother at a baseball game, according to his station bio.
Monday's assignment was to cover the heavy rains in the region, which were expected to worsen with fringes from Subtropical Storm Alberto. McCormick and Smeltzer had just interviewed the town's fire chief, who reminded them to be careful with the heavy rains and mudslides.
"Ten minutes later we get the call and it was them," an emotional Tryon Fire Chief Geoffrey Tennant said at a news conference Monday evening.
The TV news vehicle's engine was still running when rescue crews found the men. The tree's roots had been loosened after days of rain, said Tennant, who called the accident a "freak of nature."
The assignment was seemingly routine — the type of story every reporter covers at one time or another.
"We've all covered these kinds of stories. Most of us doing it without giving it a second thought," said Stevens. "It's a painful reminder of how these things can turn out."