Fire victims view ruins in a daze
GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Residents and business owners in Gatlinburg got their first look at the wildfire destruction on Friday, and many walked around the once-bustling tourist city in a daze, sobbing.
They hugged each other and promised that they would stay in touch.
“We love it up here so much,” said Gary Moore, his voice trembling. “We lost everything. But we’re alive, thank goodness. Our neighbors are alive, most of them. And we’re just so thankful for that.”
As people were let into the city, a county mayor raised the death toll to 13 and said the number of damaged buildings now approached 1,000. Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters also defended the response to the wildfires that spread rapidly Monday, saying it was not the time for “Monday morning quarterbacking.”
He promised a full review at a later date.
John Matthews of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency said a text alert telling people to evacuate went out around 9 p.m. Monday. But by that time, wildfires were raging in the area.
Matthews said some people did not receive the message due to power outages and loss of cellphone reception.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials said the right amount of resources was put in the area, including four helicopters dropping water Sunday. They said the high winds came in earlier and more forceful than expected, and that 1,000 firefighters and engines lined up end to end couldn’t have stopped it.
Local officials, bowing to pressure from frustrated property owners, allowed people back into most parts of the city Friday. Residents passed through a checkpoint and showed proof of ownership or residency.
“This is all that’s left of our house,” said Tammy Sherrod, standing with her husband in front of the rubble. “We had five minutes to get off this mountain. We got off with the clothes on our back. We got off with a few pictures.”
She found a coaster in the rubble that her 27-year-old daughter had made as a child. Half of it was brightly colored and the other half was charred black.
It still had her name, Brianna, written on the bottom in black marker.
The dead included a Memphis couple who was separated from their three sons during the wildfires.
The sons — Jared, Wesley and Branson Summers — learned that their parents had died as they were recovering in the hospital.
“The boys, swaddled in bandages with tubes hanging out and machines attached, were allowed to break quarantine, and were together in the same room, briefly, when I confirmed their parents’ death,” their uncle Jim Summers wrote on a Facebook page set up for the family. Their injuries “pale in comparison with their grief.”