Gatlinburg fires: 11 dead; little rest for responders in hunt for missing
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Alice Hagler’s family hoped she’d made it out of her Gatlinburg cabin — that maybe a neighbor had rescued her after she’d called her son about the fire roaring into the area and starting to burn her home.
But her relatives were heartbroken Wednesday evening when, they said, officials told them the 70-year-old had been found dead — one of at least 11 people killed in a wildfire that in part spread from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the eastern Tennessee resort city this week.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters on Thursday afternoon reported the three most recent deaths.
Firefighters and other responders are extending their search into previously inaccessible burned areas as people await news about loved ones they say have been missing since the fire blew in Monday.
One of Hagler’s sons, Lyle Wood, says the family is mourning and trying to figure out the next steps for a brother who lived with his mother but wasn’t home when the fire came.
“The last phone call she made to my brother was the fact that she was really scared and frantic because the house was actually on fire at that point,” Wood told CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday. “Our hope was that maybe she’d be one of the ones that was found safe.
“It’s a hard thing. … She was an amazing woman who loved a lot.”
Rescue chances dimming
The blazes scorched thousands of acres in the resort area, burning more than 700 buildings in Sevier County, including about 300 in Gatlinburg, and injuring at least 74 people, officials said.
Families still wait for word about their missing loved ones as time runs out.
“I’ll always cling to hope that there’s a chance for rescue, but now that we’re at hour 65 … we have to come to a realization” that the chances of finding people alive and perhaps trapped near the fire zone are dimming, Gatlinburg fire Chief Greg Miller said Thursday morning.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said authorities are checking 70 leads through a hotline set up to track down the missing. But the bureau said the number of leads doesn’t necessarily reflect those actually missing.
Authorities continue to block access to the city, from which about 14,000 residents and tourists were evacuated Monday.
The fires had two main origins. In part, it was an extension of a blaze that began days earlier on a trail in the mountains 10 miles south of the city, National Park Service spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. Strong winds that began Sunday helped the fire spread into the Gatlinburg area the next day.
But some of the flames were sparked by power lines that fell in heavy winds in and near the city, officials said.
Investigators suspect the trail fire was “human caused,” Soehn said, without offering further information. The cause is still under investigation.
Wildfires have burned in many parts of the Southeast for weeks, fueled by the region’s worst drought in nearly a decade.
‘She was scared’
Hagler was likely preparing for an upcoming family trip to Disney World when the flames approached Monday, daughter-in-law Rachel Wood said.
Wood said she talked to her by phone late Monday afternoon, and that Hagler was nervous about strong winds shaking her house. Unbeknown to either of them, the wind would push the fire to the home.
“She was unsettled, and she was scared,” Wood told “New Day” on Thursday. “She said she felt like her house was going to blow down because of the winds, and she said there was ash in the air.”
Hours later, the family said, she called her son James Wood to tell him that her home had caught fire.
“I told her to get out immediately,” and then the line disconnected, the son told CNN affiliate WATE-TV in Knoxville this week.
Hagler was supposed to have met the Woods and her two grandchildren in their home in Savannah, Georgia, on Tuesday. From there, they were to go to Disney World.
“She loved those kids very much,” Lyle Wood said. “She was one of those ladies that just loved people. … She never found anybody she wasn’t willing to talk to.
“We ask for prayers for the people that are still trying to figure out how to put this thing all back together.”
Firefighters refuse to rest at home
Days after Monday’s main blaze, firefighters from throughout the region were still putting out brush fires and searching scorched areas for survivors and the dead.
Miller, the Gatlinburg fire chief, said Thursday he has been trying to get his crews to go home at the end of their shifts, but most stay at the station and sleep on the floor.
“They don’t want to go home,” he said, preferring to keep searching for those presumed missing.
The Johnson City Professional Firefighters Association posted a picture on Facebook showing firefighters asleep on the sidewalk, their heads resting on their gears. They had just returned from battling the blaze for 30 hours.
‘Nothing in our pockets’
Authorities said they would begin to allow the public access to burned areas in phases, starting this weekend in unincorporated parts of Sevier County and next week in sections of Gatlinburg.
Officials will soon post information about damaged properties on a Facebook page, Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said.
Some residents already have managed to see the destruction first-hand. Trevor Cates, 37, whose home was destroyed, also lost the church he attends. On Tuesday he walked through the charred remains of the Banner Baptist Church’s buildings north of the city.
“We had practically no warning,” Cates said Thursday. “My wife and son ran through the home and grabbed a laundry basket full of pictures, our fire safe, my two Bibles, some changes of clothes and our two cats and one dog.”
He said insurance would leave him with no more mortgage payments but “nothing in our pockets.” He and his family are temporarily staying at his parents’ house.
“So … now we literally are going to start off with less than we even had the first day we were married,” he said. “The positive thing, obviously, is we have our two kids, our animals and each other. God knows best. He always has, he always will.”
Andrew Duncan sent a camera-equipped drone over Gatlinburg’s east Foothills area, where he and his family had just sold a cabin they had owned for 20 years. That cabin and many others, as well as a home he was about to buy, were destroyed, he said.
“There were cars left in ditches where people wrecked them trying to escape,” he said Thursday. “Small fires are still burning within the structures, and those that did burn appeared to be total losses. We didn’t see any partially burned structures.”
‘I thought she’d be standing in the driveway’
Another Gatlinburg resident, Michael Reed, has been desperate to find out what happened to his wife and two daughters, from whom he was separated Monday night.
Reed and his family were in their Gatlinburg-area home when word spread that a nearby fire was burning out of control. He and his 15-year-old son left in the family’s only vehicle to see what side of the road the fire was on.
He told CNN he got stuck in traffic as people fled. He received a panicked call from his wife, Constance, 34.
“She … said there were flames across the street from the house. I told her to call 911,” he said. He rushed back to the home.
“The road was on fire and every house was engulfed in flames. I thought she’d be standing in the driveway.”
Since then, he’s been trying to find out what happened to Constance and their daughters, Chloe, 12, and Lily, 9. He said authorities haven’t been able to find them.
“We’re just hoping for a miracle,” Reed told WATE on Tuesday.
Also missing are Memphis couple Jon and Janet Summers, who were visiting the area with their three sons for a family getaway, CNN affiliate WMC-TV reported.
The family appears to have been separated on Monday, and the sons were found unconscious, WMC reported. They were in a hospital on Tuesday.
Dolly Parton, the singer-actress who owns the Dollywood theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge, said Wednesday she is creating a fund for area families affected by the fires to help get them back on their feet. The fire burned in parts of the Pigeon Forge area, although the theme park was not damaged.