Among those trapped were Michael Stansell and a group of buddies, who joked that the landslide must have been entirely their fault.
The day before was Cinco De Mayo, and Stansell and others were gathered at friend Luke Wright’s house on Holder Branch Road celebrating the Mexican holiday.
“We partied the mountain down,” Stansell chuckled.
The group of friends was fast asleep when the slide actually occurred around 7 a.m. May 6. The slide pushed trees and earth about 200 feet down an embankment, covering nearly 125 feet of roadway.
The road was closed for about a day as N.C. Department of Transportation workers moved the debris, which included a storage building that was swept down in the slide.
Dara Parker realized she was blocked in by the landslide not long after it happened Monday morning when her three kids headed to school.
Although the road was cleared in time for them to go to school Tuesday, Parker said she is still worried about the stability of the road and mountainside. DOT workers shoved the debris to either side of the road, creating tall mounds of dirt residents now have to pass through.
“I’m a little nervous with the kids,” she said. “You always kind of wonder if it is going to give way.”
Emergency officials rode four-wheelers up the mountains to check on the people stuck on the wrong side of the slide around 9 a.m. Monday, Stansell said. N.C. Highway Patrol even called in a helicopter to help assess the situation.
“It was something else,” Stansell said. “Apparently, it was a lot bigger deal than we thought it was.”
Initial assessments by DOT concluded that a fill slope above the switchback on the road was the source of the slide. Haywood County sustained an estimated three inches of rainfall prior to the slide.
“There is concern throughout our region about more rain — what it will do to existing slides and some slopes that we don’t know are unstable,” said Joel Setzer, head of a 10-county region of DOT in the mountains. “We will be happy if it does not rain for a couple of weeks.”
Marc Pruett, a Haywood soil and erosion officer, made rounds to about half a dozen landslides through the wee hours of the morning Sunday night when the more than two-days of unceasing rains finally quit. The cause of all the slides?
“The heavy weight of water on steep slopes,” Pruett said.
All the landslides originated from slopes that had been graded, cut or fill in some way at some point in time — rather than completely natural terrain.
“I think all of them we saw were associated with artificial work in some way,” Pruett said.
DOT has not set a deadline or calculated cost estimates for the Holder Branch Road repairs. Setzer said that the department is still dealing with a backlog of repairs for damages that occurred during January when Western North Carolina was slammed with nearly a week of heavy rains.
“We are not fully recovered from those storms,” Setzer said. “We are working very diligently.”
According to Parker, Monday was not the first time a landslide had occurred on Holder Branch Road. A slide happened in about the same place more than 10 years ago. Back then, officials cleaned up the mess and planted some grass, but they didn’t fix the problem, she said.
Neither Stansell nor Wright were overly concerned about not being able to take the traditional route down Holder Branch Road.
“It was like a vacation,” Wright said.
Plus, they had a round about way out. Interstate 40 runs over Holder Branch Road and there is a gap in the metal guardrail. Wright and others were able walk up to onto the shoulder of the interstate, where a prearranged ride picked them and took them where they needed to go.