7 dead in Gatlinburg wildfires; heavy damage to Tennessee tourist mecca

Update: At least seven people have been killed by the wildfires in and around Gatlinburg, federal officials said late Wednesday, and they warn that the toll could go higher.

At a press conference, the officials reported that 700 structures in Gatlinburg and surrounding Sevier County have been damaged or destroyed by the fire.

So far, about four dozen people have been injured in the fires, and an estimated 14,000 have fled their homes in the area and are hoping for a chance to come back now that heavy rains have tamped down the flames.

In the kitschy tourist mecca of Pigeon Forge, there was a strange juxtaposition of mood early Wednesday.

Even as some evacuated from their homes filling hotels in nearby communities, others here on vacation were still heading to the various attractions in Pigeon Forge. The place was lit up in all its Christmas finery, with all manner of colored lights, brightly lit trees and giant lighted snowflakes on the street poles along the Parkway main drag.

But there was a smoky haze in the air around attractions such as the Hatfield and McCoy dinner theater, the big building that looks like a the Titanic, and the Ripley Aquarium.

The smell infests itself in your nose and works its way down into an irritation in your chest.

Yolanda Thompson walked into to the breakfast area of the Hampton Inn looking exhausted and disheveled.

She had evacuated her Gatlinburg home when the fire and smoke advanced quickly Monday due to heavy winds, some reaching 80 miles per hour.

“It’s gone. It’s gone,” she said of her home. “We are one of many, many who lost their homes.”

As daylight dawned Wednesday morning, the harsh realities of the fast-spreading fire became apparent in Gatlinburg, a mountain town in eastern Tennessee known as the gateway to the vast Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Gatlinburg is often described as a kind of geographical bowl, surrounded by tree-filled hills. Many homes there are right up against the woods.

Teresa Goff-Tater of Gatlinburg said she lost her home in the fires. She is seen here with her dog at the shelter set up at Rocky Top Sports World recreation center in Gatlinburg, Tenn. on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Craig Schneider / cschneider@ajc.com)
Teresa Goff-Tater of Gatlinburg said she lost her home in the fires. She is seen here with her dog at the shelter set up at Rocky Top Sports World recreation center in Gatlinburg, Tenn. on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Craig Schneider / cschneider@ajc.com)

The blaze moved into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge late Monday night and early Tuesday fueled by powerful wind gusts nearing 90 mph. Tourists and residents were sent scrambling as the fire bore down.

Wednesday morning the rain continued, a thankful reprieve. But it brought with it concerns about mudslides and other dangers for the firefighters still battling the blaze, one of a number torching tens of thousands of acres across the drought-stricken Southeast.

Andrew Leon, a disaster restoration worker from Alpharetta, is shown at the Hampton Inn in Pigeon Forge, getting ready to go restore a hotel damaged by smoke on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Craig Schneider / cschneider@ajc.com)
Andrew Leon, a disaster restoration worker from Alpharetta, is shown at the Hampton Inn in Pigeon Forge, getting ready to go restore a hotel damaged by smoke on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Craig Schneider / cschneider@ajc.com)

Andrew Leon came up from Alpharetta to work on restoring a hotel, severely damaged by smoke.

“It’s full of smoke,” said the restoration worker. “We see this all the time. It sucks.”

Joe Miklojachak, who joined him from the Alpharetta disaster restoration company Cotton USA, said, “We do this around the world. You just have to put aside your feelings and do your job. It’s like being in the military.”

About 300 people came to a makeshift shelter in the LeConte Event Center in Pigeon Forge on Monday night, many fleeing as part of the mandatory evacuation of Gatlinburg. By Tuesday evening, the number of people was down to about 30 as many found refuge with relatives and friends. The shelter also held 29 eagles from Dollywood, the popular tourist attraction here. The attraction was not damaged.

Dollywood - named for country music superstar Dolly Parton - is a popular area destination. It wasn’t damaged, but the fire was close. About a dozen of its cabins were damaged, and the attraction had closed temporarily.

Red Cross shelter manager Ellen Watkins and volunteer Patrick Baxter are shown at the shelter in Pigeon Forge on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Craig Schneider / cschneider@ajc.com)This is Red Cross shelter manager Ellen Watkins and volunteer Patrick Baxter are shown at the shelter in Pigeon Forge on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Craig Schneider / cschneider@ajc.com)
Red Cross shelter manager Ellen Watkins and volunteer Patrick Baxter are shown at the shelter in Pigeon Forge on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Craig Schneider / cschneider@ajc.com)This is Red Cross shelter manager Ellen Watkins and volunteer Patrick Baxter are shown at the shelter in Pigeon Forge on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Craig Schneider / cschneider@ajc.com)

“People are frustrated, ready to go home, not knowing that their home is there,” said Ellen Watkins, the Red Cross Shelter manager.

A volunteer, Kathy Christian, posted a notice on Facebook that they had three dogs displaced in the fire. One person drove nearly two hours to pick up one dog, a white mutt with ears that looked like they had been dipped in chocolate. The dog had one brown eye and one blue.

Locals did what they could to help out. Players and staff from the Hatfield and McCoy theater volunteered at the shelter. The dinner theater offered a free lunch Tuesday, and the Comedy Barn offered a free show.

Fire erupts on the side of The Spur on Highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.
Fire erupts on the side of The Spur on Highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.

Heather Sami was among three nurses who showed up at a separate shelter on Gatlinburg. They helped people with breathing issues, offering inhalers and breathing treatments.

Sami’s husband had just worked 32 hours straight as a firefighter taking on the spreading flames.

“He was trapped in the Park Vista (hotel) for a time,” she said. “By the grace of God he got out.”

The fire spread quickly, she said. Just before, her husband had been doing work to prevent the spread of it, clearing debris and wetting down some structures. Then the intense winds whipped up “throwing fire everywhere,” she said.

Vacationing here on her 35th wedding anniversary, Cindy McLain was taking in the shops in Gatlinburg when she saw what she thought was snow flitting through the air. But it was too warm for snow, she thought, and soon after realized it was ash from the growing fires.

Within 20 minutes, “everything took on a reddish glow. You couldn’t see the next stoplight.”

She’s from the New Orleans area and the tragedy here reminded her of the Katrina floods.

“Our hearts hurt for the people here,” she said.

She and her husband evacuated to a hotel in Pigeon Forge.

Channel 2's Tom Regan reports.