Dazed Tennessee residents get first look at wildfire rubble
GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Charlotte Moore needed a phone charger.
“I’ll just get it at home,” she shrugged.
Then she remembered that her home was gone.
The realization came as she made the familiar drive up to the top of Laurel Mountain in the Roaring Fork neighborhood of Gatlinburg on Friday, where what lay ahead was anything but familiar. On the first day officials let property owners return to assess the damage from the wildfire that devastated their homes, the eastern Tennessee tourist destination was headed toward an uncertain future.
As people were allowed into the city, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters raised the death toll to 13 and said the number of damaged buildings now approached 1,000. He 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 later.
Gatlinburg residents and business owners, meanwhile, got their first look at the wildfire destruction Friday, and many walked around the once-bustling city in a daze, sobbing.
They hugged each other and promised they would stay in touch.
“We love it up here so much,” said Gary Moore, Charlotte’s husband, 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.”
Every home they passed on the drive up was a pile of unrecognizable rubble. They stopped to console some neighbors — Scott and Tammy Sherrod — who were seeing what was left of their home for the first time. Scott calmly walked through what remained of the home he bought with a VA loan four years ago. Tammy sat among the ashes and cried.
Tammy and her daughter salvaged a few items, including a pottery coaster that her daughter had made when she was a little girl. Half of it shined in bright colors, while the other half was charred black. Brianna’s name was still written on the back.
“That’s all we got,” Tammy said.
Tammy and her family had escaped the flames just in time Monday night. As she drove her car down the road, she placed her hand against the window for a moment but had to jerk it away because the heat had burned her.
“It was like the gates of hell opened up,” she said.
After days of waiting to see their homes, some of the shock gave way to anger.
“The city sure could have done a better job of getting us out of here,” said Delbert Wallace, who lost his home. “When they got up that morning, when they seen that fire, we should have been on alert right then.”
Authorities urged anyone who hiked the trial to give them a call.
Waters and other local officials said the fire moved so far so fast that it gave them little time to react.
The dead included a Memphis couple 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 a Nashville 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.”
Other fatalities included a couple from Canada, 71-year-old Jon Tegler and 70-year-old Janet Tegler, a woman named Alice Hagler, and May Vance, who died of a heart attack after she was exposed to smoke. Officials said she was vacationing in Gatlinburg, but an obituary posted online said she was from the area.
Other victims’ names have not been released.
In communities near Gatlinburg, signs of normalcy appeared. In Pigeon Forge, the Comedy House rented an electronic billboard message that said it was open, and Dollywood, the amusement park named after Dolly Parton, reopened Friday afternoon after it was spared any damage.
The Associated Press was allowed into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the most visited national park in the country — on Thursday. Soot, ash and blackened trees covered the forest floor, and the gorgeous vistas of tree-topped mountain ranges were scarred by large areas of blackened soil and trees. Small plumes of smoke smoldered from hot spots.
Deputy Park Superintendent Jordan Clayton said the initial fire started Nov. 23 near the end of the Chimney Tops hiking trail.
“Whether it was purposefully set or whether it was a careless act that was not intended to cause a fire, that we don’t know,” Clayton said. “The origin of the fire is under investigation.”
At the top of the mountain, Charlotte Moore took a picture of her burned-out car. She found a favorite vase mostly intact, but the coins inside were melted together. She and her husband are better off than most because they also own a home in Florida, which is where they were at the time of the fire. But Gatlinburg had been their primary residence. On Friday, they spent most of their time at home comforting their neighbors.
“It just hits me in the gut,” Gary Moore said.
Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press writers Rebecca Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kristin M. Hall in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, contributed to this report.