YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Chunks of granite crashed to the Yosemite Valley floor in a cloud of dust Wednesday, injuring at least three people and destroying several cabins and trees at one of the park's most popular lodging areas, officials said.
The rock slide was the second in two days in the area called Curry Village, a lodging and retail area defined by dramatic, sheer cliffs.
"We were awakened at 7 to what sounded like thunder and what felt like the Earth crumbling apart," said Deanne Maschmeyer, 41, of Monterey, who was staying in a nearby cabin with her two children. "People were stampeding everywhere and running, running like crazy. I felt like I was running ahead of a tsunami."
The slide destroyed five cabins and partially damaged at least three others, according to a park statement. Three visitors were treated for minor injuries.
The volume of rocks cascading from the granite face was estimated at about 1,800 cubic yards, or about 180 truck loads, said Vickie Mates, a park spokeswoman.
There was another, smaller rock slide in the same area Tuesday afternoon. No one was injured then.
In 1996, a rock slide in the same area sent as much as 162,000 tons of rock plummeting more than 2,000 feet, killing one visitor and felling 500 trees. A slide in 1999 killed one climber and injured three others while narrowly missing the popular campground.
Tom Trujillo, of New Milford, Conn., who was with a group of amateur photographers, saw Wednesday's rock slide and ran toward it.
"Trees were crushed all over the place," Trujillo said over the sound of a hovering helicopter. "A couple of kids, fifth or sixth-graders, were stumbling out of the area. I tried to pick them up, tried to get them out as fast as I could."
Trujillo said he helped one boy, who had blood on his forehead and down his back, get out and find his mother.
"It was a really big mess," Trujillo said. "Tents were crushed, trees were knocked down, hard cabins were moved out of their positions, with boulders blocking their doorway."
Another photographer, Rena McClain, a nurse from Dover, Del., told The Associated Press that she had her back to the granite face when she heard what sounded like a thunderclap. She whipped around and saw a giant cloud of rock and dust coming down.
"People were starting to yell, 'Run, run,' and kids started to scream," McClain said.
As the dust settled, shaken teachers and chaperones gathered groups of high school students and tried to get head counts.
"The kids were crying," said McClain. "I tried to comfort them. I'm a nurse; my immediate response was, 'What can I try to do to help?'"
Mates said the rocks fell across an area that used to be traversed by a trail no longer maintained because of heavy rock falls.
The beauty of the sheer granite face towering above the camp helps make Curry Village one of park's most popular lodging options.
In recent years, geologists have published studies describing a series of cracks along the cliff's face and hypothesizing that pressure from water flowing beneath the surface may be one trigger of the slides.
Researchers also say that tree roots growing down into cracks can sometimes wedge apart sheets of rock, sending sections of cliff tumbling.
Curry Village, founded in 1899 in south-central Yosemite, has 610 canvas and wood cabins in rows among huge boulders, which geologists say are there because of prehistoric rock falls.
Those who saw Wednesday's slide wondered about the safety of the camp.
"With the village right below the rock face, there is definitely a safety issue," said Trujillo, pointing out that the cabins could be moved farther away from the granite cliff, into the parking lot area.
To McClain, on her visit to the park, the rock slide was an eye-opener.
"Nature here is unbelievable, but until you see what can happen, don't realize the danger that can result," McClain said. "I would return to Yosemite. But would I stay in Curry Village? I don't know that I would. I'm pretty shaken up."