‘Every time I close my eyes I can see it’: East Tenn. landslide survivor recounts narrow escape

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HAWKINS COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Two years after a landslide wiped out part of a Northeast Tennessee road killing one driver, a second driver who escaped the landslide is telling his story for the very first time.

“Every time I close my eyes I can see it,” said Johnny Mabe of Eidson, Tennessee. “It still seems like it was yesterday instead of two years ago.”

Mabe said he left his house just after 1 a.m. on February 21, 2019 to make the drive to work, just like he did every weekday morning. He got on State Route 70, never an easy road to travel with it’s hairpin turns and switchback path over Clinch Mountain. But for the professional truck driver who’s accustomed to being on the road in all types of weather, that morning was especially challenging.

He encountered near zero-visibility conditions as several days of unrelenting rain showed no signs of relenting.

“You couldn’t really see what was in front of you,” Mabe remembered. “All of a sudden, something looked funny. I couldn’t tell what it was at the time. By the time I realized what it was it was too late.”

Mabe said he became aware that the road in front of him had vanished.

“I told myself – the road is gone,” he said. “But by the time I tried to save it, it was too late.”

An attempt to make a hard left turn yielded little benefit.

Figure 3: Viewing along southbound lane across the headscarp. (Source: TDOT)

“All I had time to realize was that I needed to go left if I could. I tried, but I couldn’t.”

The exact details of what happened next are unclear even to him.

Mabe now believes his car rolled side over side, down the gash in the mountain, in a river of pavement and mud and trees.

Crews work to stabilize Mabe’s brown SUV for its removal. Beside it is the car diven by Steven Lawson of Jonesborough who died in the landslide. (Photo courtesy: Kingsport Fire Department)

He remembers flashes in time.

“A lot of jarring and jerking and metal grinding,” he said. “I could hear that, and I could feel myself jerking around in the vehicle. Once I stopped, I was like – I need to get out.”

From the road below, the size and scale of the landslide becomes apparent.  (Photo courtesy: Kingsport Fire Department)

But first, he had to solve another urgent problem.

“My scalp was hanging down here at the time,” Mabe said, pointing to the left side of his fact. “I knew that.”

Despite searing pain and blood pouring down his face, the soft-spoken man recalls the moments of unexplainably calm deliberation over what he needed to do to survive.

FILE PHOTO: WJHL

“I was kind of like – let’s get this back on here and get out,” he said, referring to his lacerated scalp draped across the side of his face. “Once I got out of the vehicle, I took my shirt off and wrapped it around my head because I realized I was going to have to walk.”

Blinded by rain and blood, Johnny Mabe stumbled down the landslide led by the sound of chainsaws and flashed of light on the road below. There, he found a crew clearing trees on the road below. He believes the men were unaware of the landslide further up the mountain.

FILE PHOTO: WJHL

“When I came out on the road, a guy came around the back of the truck. And I said, ‘The road is out.’ And he said, ‘Oh God. I’ve got to call an ambulance.'”

A spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation confirms that man who encountered Mabe was a TDOT maintenance employee from Hawkins County.

Mabe says he leaned against a guardrail and waited on the side of the road until trees were cleared and an ambulance arrived.

He was rushed to a hospital in Kingsport where he spent one night getting treatment for his cuts and the broken bones in his face.

PHOTO: WJHL

The next day he went home.

After depleting his vacation and sick days, Mabe returned to work the following May.

Almost two years later, he says he’s still paying medical bills. His daily drive to work hasn’t changed. He drives over that now-repaired stretch of road every day, mindful that he survived… but that another man didn’t.

“I probably wouldn’t have thought anything else about it if it was just me. But it wasn’t. That bothers me,” Mabe said.

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