HARMONS DEN, N.C. (AP) — Two rock slides closed Interstate 40 at the Tennessee state line Tuesday, and the highway was expected to be closed through the holiday weekend.
Five people were injured.
Police rerouted traffic hundreds of miles out of the way on the major artery between North Carolina and Tennessee. Motorists were advised to expect long delays during the busy July 4th weekend because the highway would be closed for several days.
Two people were injured when their vehicle ran into a boulder in the westbound lanes of the highway. Three other sustained injuries when another huge rock hit the top of their van in I-40's eastbound lane, the state Highway Patrol said.
The injured were in stable condition at Haywood Community Hospital.
Hours after the major slides, smaller rocks continued to cascade down the mountainside next to the interstate.
The slide occurred at 3:45 a.m. in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I-40 winds through the Pigeon River gorge. It left some boulders the size of buses in the roadway, and highway crews began blasting them so they could be removed.
Margaret Weise of Auburn Hills, Mich., was meeting a friend she met on the Internet with whom she was going kayaking on the Nantahala River. She was a lucky one - after about a 40-minute wait, she got through one lane before the highway was closed to general traffic.
A portion of both lanes of I-40 at the one mile marker in Haywood County will be blocked for at least two days while Department of Transportation crews clean up debris.
Motorists headed west to Tennessee must take Interstate 77 into Virginia and travel Interstate 81 back to Tennessee, said the North Carolina Highway Patrol. An alternate route is Interstate 85 south to Atlanta and I-75 to Chattanooga, Tenn., the patrol said.
``Tennessee-bound traffic must take one of these routes. Motorists who insist on continuing west on I-40 will experience lengthy delays and may end up stranded or backtracking,'' said patrol spokeswoman Renee Hoffman.
Tennessee authorities are rerouting eastbound traffic into North Carolina, she said.
Motorists already in the Asheville area could use U.S. 23 into Tennessee, DOT said. Restrictions on trucks using the narrow, twisting mountain road were lifted until further notice.
``We are doing some drilling and we will be doing some blasting to remove some of the material,'' said DOT resident engineer Rick Styles.
Rain may have contributed to the slide, Styles said.
Westbound trucks were backed up for 1-1/2 miles immediately after the slide, but concrete barriers between lanes were removed so they could turn around and head east.
The area is prone to falling rock. The last major slide occurred in the mid-1980s when slides closed two tunnels for several weeks on I-40 near the Tennessee border, DOT said.
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