Three die trapped under water in car as relentless storms pound the Charlotte region

National Weather Service

Three people died west of Lincolnton Saturday evening after the vehicle they were traveling in crashed into Rockdam Creek, trapping them under in six feet of water, according to the N.C. Highway Patrol.

Identities of the three were not yet released Sunday morning.

The deaths were the first reported from relentless storms the National Weather Service expects to dump 6 inches of rain over the next few days on Charlotte.

Parts of the region will see more flash flooding and severe thunderstorms, and possibly tornadoes into early next week, National Weather Service meteorologists said in a hazardous weather alert Saturday.

Saturday’s fatal crash happened about 7:50 p.m. on NC 27 near Rock Dam Road, according to a press release from the highway patrol.

“The preliminary investigation indicates a vehicle was traveling west on NC 27, hydroplaned and ran off the road, collided with a tree, and overturned in Rockdam Creek,” said a release from Master Trooper Jeffrey Swagger of the NC State Highway Patrol.

“All three occupants were trapped in the vehicle which was on its side and submerged in approximately 6 feet of water. The creek waters were higher than normal due to heavy rainfall over the past two days. Rescue efforts were greatly hindered by extremely heavy rainfall at the time.”

Major flash flooding and several rescues were reported along the U.S. 321 corridor from Hickory to Blowing Rock, and in Alexander County.

College Pines Nursing Home, a mile west of Connelly Springs in Burke County, evacuated around 8 p.m. due to flooding, according to the weather service, as did an apartment building 3 miles west of Hickory.

“Several bridges, low lying areas, and roadways” were also reported to be covered in water in Wilkes County, according to a post by the Wilkes County Rescue Squad.

Conditions were expected to worsen late Saturday, as the Weather Prediction Center upgraded the flooding risk to “extreme” for the Foothills and northwest mountains.

At about 9 p.m. Friday, emergency responders rescued at least one person when flash flooding stalled several cars on Interstate 40 near U.S. 321 in Hickory, NWS meteorologists reported, citing amateur radio accounts. Catawba County emergency officials also reported water rescues, but didn’t say where.

A flash flood watch remains in effect through Sunday night for the Charlotte area, large swaths of South Carolina and the North Carolina mountains.

“Several waves of heavy rain producing showers and thunderstorms will move northward across the western Carolinas and northeast Georgia today, tonight and Sunday,” according to the flash flood watch issued at 4 a.m. Saturday by the NWS office in Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., which oversees the Charlotte region.

“These showers will be very efficient heavy rain producers, easily dumping 1 to 2 inches of rainfall in an hour in the heaviest downpours,” NWS forecasters said in the watch.

A thunderstorm with “torrential rainfall” rumbled across Lincoln, Gaston and Mecklenburg counties early Saturday evening, according to an NWS tweet. Intense showers swept through uptown Charlotte.

The office earlier warned residents of Mecklenburg and surrounding counties to stay off corded phones and avoid taking baths and showers as lightning struck the region.

Rain already dumping on region

About an inch of rain fell Friday night at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

According to automated gauges, rainfall in Mecklenburg ranged from about a half-inch in Ballantyne and Pineville, to as much as 2 inches in Huntersville. The Hickory airport reported 2.95 inches, while a gauge on U.S. 220 in Greensboro recorded more than 5 inches.

The threat of severe weather is expected to linger into at least early next week, according to the NWS Greenville-Spartanburg office.

“With multiple days of moderate to heavy rainfall, the threat of flash flooding will increase,” NWS meteorologists warned in an alert Friday.

How long the ‘wet weather pattern’ will linger

Blame “a very slow-moving low pressure system” approaching the area from the west this weekend, NWS meteorologists said in an online forecast discussion. The “active and wet weather pattern” is expected to linger until a cold front “will finally push through on Wednesday, bringing in some drier air from the west.”

Charlotte Douglas International Airport has a 70 percent chance of heavy rain and patchy fog on Saturday, an 80 percent chance of heavy rain early Sunday and a 90 percent chance of thunderstorms Sunday, according to the NWS forecast.

The chance of thunderstorms stands at 80 percent Monday before dropping to 60 percent Tuesday, NWS meteorologists said in a forecast update Friday afternoon.

NWS forecasters predict 6.05 inches of rain will fall in Charlotte and 5.53 inches in Rock Hill through Wednesday, 5.91 inches in Monroe, 5.3 inches in Gastonia, 5.41 inches in Lincolnton, and 5.5 inches in Hickory. They expect 6.53 inches to fall in Statesville.

Joe Marusak has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1989 covering the people, municipalities and major news events of the region, and was a news bureau editor for the paper. He currently reports on breaking news.