Within hours, wildfires set Tennessee mountain city aflame

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Tracey Mayberry told her boss to fire her.

It was 2 o’clock Monday afternoon in Gatlinburg, and the sky was dark with smoke. Mayberry’s shift as a manager at the resort where she worked did not end until 5 p.m., but she could see a wildfire crawling down the mountain. Local officials said the city had nothing to worry about, and Mayberry’s boss had no plans to close. But she knew something was wrong, so she walked home, coughing and crying through the smoke until a stranger handed her a mask.

That wildfire had ignited five days earlier on a steep, rugged peak known as Chimney Tops, about 4 miles away from Gatlinburg. In less than 24 hours, aided by 87 mph winds and months of suffocating drought, the blaze would spread, forging a path to this tourist mecca. In all, 13 people were killed, about 85 were injured and nearly 1,000 homes and businesses were charred or destroyed.

The flames came with little warning.

At 5 o’clock, there were no fires in Gatlinburg. Within an hour, 20 buildings were ablaze.

Over the next few hours, the fires transformed a city busily preparing for holiday festivities in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains into the scene of a grim, building-by-building search for the missing and the dead. Rain fell by midweek, dousing much of the fire but leaving hollow-eyed city officials, firefighters and police officers working around the clock. Many had to put news of their own gutted homes from their minds.

Tracey and her husband— also named Tracy — packed their 2007 Ford Escape with valuables. They stopped when a tree fell on their house and sparks from a downed powerline showered their yard. It was time to go.

They did not get far. Traffic was snarled on the parkway heading out of town. Tracy, sitting anxiously behind the wheel, watched as the wind blew a fireball into the Alamo Steakhouse just a few feet from his window. He gunned the engine and swerved into the middle turn lane, the speedometer racing toward 90.

“I wasn’t stopping for nothing or nobody,” he said.

Across the city, firefighters were locked in a hopeless battle. The wind was scattering chunks of flame across a thirsty landscape and knocking trees into power lines, creating new fires. At 6 o’clock, authorities shifted their focus from stopping the fire to evacuating the city. More than 700 people fled the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort and Spa. At the Lodge at Buckberry Creek, a chef and an event planner evacuated more than a dozen people before the flames destroyed the property. At a local hospital, 57-year-old Mark Howard was recovering from pneumonia when a neighbor called to tell him his house was on fire. He dialed 911 from his hospital bed.

The operator said, “‘Are you kidding me? You’re calling us?” Howard said. “I said, ‘Yeah, is there another number I should call?’”

The fire had been burning for several days, mostly in the unreachable peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park not far from the edge of one of the most popular hiking trails. The fire was so small and so remote that for days firefighters could not get to it. Instead they came up with a plan to contain it. But beginning Sunday afternoon and into Monday morning, the moisture vanished from the air, the temperature rose and the wind began galloping through the trees.

By Monday afternoon, “There was no stopping the fire,” said Clayton Jordan, deputy superintendent for the park.

Wolf McLellan, a 30-year-old street magician, was re-stringing his guitar at the Rainbow Motel on Monday night when things got bad.

“The sky just lit up, like the sun was just on the other side of the tree line,” he said. “The wind sounded like a freaking freight train. It was absolutely horrifying as it would whistle through the window gaps.”

McLellan left with his guitar, two computers and two bags that he would later abandon on the side of the road. His dog Kylie — a bulldog, bloodhound mix with floppy ears — just stared at the flames. McLellan tried to pull her with the leash, but she wouldn’t budge. He decided to leave her when he saw a deer streaking down the street away from the blaze.

About a mile away, Heather Stargle was on the phone with her mother at the Travellers Motel when there was a knock at her door. It was her neighbor, warning her that police officers were at the bottom of the hill asking people to leave. She took a red backpack and stuffed it with three changes of clothes, a hair brush, deodorant and two bottles of medicine. She grabbed a half case of Coke on the way out the door.

Flames surrounded the motel as she left. But Stargle had one more stop to make. She pounded on the door of another neighbor, Pamela Johnson — “Mama Pam” to those who frequented the McKinney Food Mart where she worked for the past 13 years.

“I sat there and said, ‘Pam, please just open up the door and come on.’ I said, ‘The place is catching on fire,’” Stargle said. “She said, ‘Get away from the door, I am not coming.’ She said that if she was meant to live, she would live. If not, she wouldn’t.

“And that was the last thing we had heard.”

The Travellers Motel was completely destroyed. On Wednesday, authorities announced they had discovered an unidentified body at the scene. Behind the door that night, Johnson had been on the phone with Karyssa Dalton, her 19-year-old granddaughter. They had talked for five minutes at 7:40 p.m., and again for six minutes and 47 seconds at 8:45 p.m.

At 10:36 p.m., Johnson did not answer. It was the first of 29 unanswered calls.

“It’s emotional. Very, very emotional,” Dalton said. “I do not know where she is, I don’t know if she is safe, I don’t know if she is gone. I just need everybody to know she is still missing and that she needs help, that she needs family.”


Jonathan Mattise contributed reporting from Nashville, Tennessee.