"WHEN SARAH MCCOIN WOKE THAT MORNING, she wondered what had happened in the middle of the night. Some commotion near the farm had disturbed her in the early hours—the sounds of emergency vehicles and helicopters—but there’d been no indication of what had brought them out. Was it a major crime? That seemed unlikely: After all, Kingston, Tennessee was a pretty sleepy town, with just under 6,000 residents.
As she got dressed, McCoin turned on the radio to hear reports of a mudslide. But where could that much mud come from? “The only thing I could think of was someone had cleared a hill to put in a modular home,” she recalls.
McCoin, who is 58 with short, sandy hair and stylish, thin-framed glasses, got into her car to commute to nearby Knoxville, where she worked as a benefits consultant. But less than a mile from her door, she hit a police barricade. She asked the officer on the road what happened; he just told her to turn around. McCoin, the ninth generation to live on her farm, wasn’t afraid of a little mudslide. “I’m in a four-wheel-drive—how much mud can there be?” she wondered. But the officer wasn’t friendly or forthcoming, and told her simply that she couldn’t pass. She shrugged. He had probably been up all night.
It was only after driving about three miles in the other direction that she finally saw it: an epic wall of ash had settled like lava over the river, threatening Kingston. The muddy, toxic mass had turned the Emory and Clinch rivers, which wind around the city through the rolling Appalachian hills, into a sea of slime.
“It was everywhere,” McCoin says. “It was everywhere you could imagine.”
The vision was horrifying. Mounds of sludge—“ashbergs”—forty or fifty feet high jutted out of the river, some topped with bushes and trees torn from their roots.
What she was seeing was a disaster: the worst industrial accident in American history."