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Trial forces widower to relive mountainside tragedy

Almost two years ago, a retired couple from Florida was crushed in their home after the hillside behind their house in the Wild Acres subdivision of Maggie Valley collapsed.

Ed Jones, 75, lived, but his wife, Trish, then 63, was buried alive instantly. Jones recounted the final minutes with his wife and the devastation of the landslide during a court case last week over the cause of the landslide.

The morning of Dec. 11, 2003, began just like any other. Jones was still in his pajamas and Trish had just gotten out of the shower.

“I went in the bathroom and asked her how long it would be before we could go work out at the hospital fitness center. She said it would be about 20 minutes or so, she was putting all her lotions on,” Jones said.

“As I walked out the door, my feet just went up in the air and I went down. I didn’t really hear a thing. The bed post must have knocked me out. When I woke up, I thought maybe an airplane had hit the house. I didn’t know what was going on,” he said.

Jones remembered calling Trish’s name when he heard someone walking around outside.

“I called out and they said keep talking, help is on the way. I kept communicating with them, whoever it was. I drifted in and out and then I heard a voice saying ‘OK, we’re going to get him’ and they said ‘OK, do it now’ and I felt walls coming off me,” Jones said. “I was still in my bedroom but it was out in the front yard. It was very confusing.”

Tim Carver, chief of the Maggie Valley Fire Department, was one of the rescue workers who arrived shortly after the slide. Jones’ attorney, Mark Melrose of Waynesville, asked Carver if Jones realized what had just happened.

“No, I don’t think so. You could tell he just went through a traumatic event. He said it felt like somebody jerked the rug out from under his feet,” Carver said.

The house was shoved off the foundation as if by a giant bulldozer. What wasn’t buried in mud was crumpled like matchsticks.

“Everywhere but where Mr. Jones was at was pretty much destroyed,” Carver said.

Rescue workers carried Jones on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance where he was examined, but the only injuries were cuts and bruises.

“We done our best to try to talk him in to going to the hospital. He said he wanted to stay there until he found his wife,” recounted Danny Owenby, a paramedic who helped pull Jones from the house.

Rescue workers cut a hole in the roof of the house — or what was left of it — and shined an infrared heat sensor into the rubble in hopes of detecting a warm body. But the splintered shell of the house had been filled to the brim with mud and debris.

Holding out hope that Trish was somehow encased in a pocket of air, perhaps braced from the slide by a door jam or shower stall, they called in a local backhoe operator to jump start the search. They scraped back a few inches at a time, working in systematic rows to peel back the layers of mud quickly but carefully lest they strike her with the machinery and injure her if she was somehow alive in there.

Jones had retreated to a shop on the edge of his property that was unscathed and built a fire in a woodstove. From there, he could alternately escape the bitter cold that day or step out on the porch to watch rescue workers dig through wreckage for his wife. Meanwhile, the Haywood County medical examiner, Mary Cody, had arrived and spent the afternoon making small talk with Jones in his shop.

“Can you imagine the horror of standing on that porch and having no one else to talk to except the medical examiner who was waiting to go out there and certify the death of your wife when they found her body?” Melrose posed to the jury.

The medical examiner did her best to comfort Jones during those long hours.

“He was obviously very shook up psychologically. He kept repeating the same thing over and over,” Cody said. “We talked about his cat quite a bit. He was telling me about his wife being a dancer and liking to dance and we talked about that frequently. And something about a diamond ring he kept repeating over and over. Every time someone came into the room, he would ask about whether his wife had been found and whether or not they had found this piece of jewelry. I just tried to make small talk. At this time he realized his wife might be deceased.”

The sight rescue workers had been fearfully anticipating all afternoon finally arrived when just before dusk a single scrape of the backhoe revealed a hand protruding from the mud. They knew instantly the body attached to that hand was not alive. They turned off the machine. The chaplain said a prayer. Rescue workers scraped mud away from the buried body by hand while Carver walked over to the workshop where Jones was waiting and delivered the news.

“I asked did she die right away and he said they were sure she did. She was claustrophobic and I didn’t want her to be boxed in, not able to breathe,” Jones recalled.

Owenby, the paramedic, then helped the medical examiner across the field of debris to the body to perform her examination.

Jones had Trish’s body cremated. Jones said her ashes will be buried with him when he dies.

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