Full disclosure: I really don’t know how to properly describe what my wife and I saw and experienced during our visit to Gatlinburg, Tennessee this past weekend, so please bear with me. To be sure, it was 36 hours that neither of us will never forget. We met some wonderful people. If you don’t mind, please take a few minutes and read their stories. If you feel led to help in any way afterward, I encourage you to do so. Thank you.
Nearly two weeks had passed since deadly fires tore through Sevier County, in particular the Gatlinburg area, claiming the lives of 14 people and destroying more than 2,400 homes, businesses and other structures.
The city had just reopened its doors to the public Friday morning, Dec. 9 for the first time since that tragic night. We made it into town around 3 a.m. Saturday and checked into our hotel.
In the process of checking in, we met Brent. He was renting a house on Turkey Nest Road; a house that is no longer standing. Brent said 16 out of the 17 homes in his neighborhood were destroyed by the fires. He lost his mother’s plates and cash he had stored in the house, in hopes of someday purchasing it.
In addition to that, Brent was having a hard time finding another place to rent, but he wasn’t letting it get him down. He was spending time at the hotel that night with songwriters that were in town for a gathering. More than a couple of times, he thanked us for coming and told us how much he appreciated us being there.
Speaking of the songwriters, we met one of them at breakfast the following morning. Ethan Workman and a friend were writing down lyrics and singing some of them at their table, which was right next to ours.
We said hello and Ethan told us about a song he was working on, as a tribute after what had happened in the fires. I’d share the name here because it’s quite good, but don’t want to give it away in case he is planning to produce the song.
Ethan said something as he described his song that stuck with us: Even though life’s been so bad, it’s still good. We would get a similar sentiment – a positive outlook despite hard times – from so many other people in Gatlinburg that day.
We began our walk through town that morning on Reagan Drive. This took us past the site where the Gatlinburg Church of Christ building once stood. More on that later, but as you can see, the building was taken by the fires. We got our first real sense of the level of damage and destruction in the area at that moment.
Directly across the street from the site of the burned church building, a block from a burned apartment building, and next door to a burned house, stood Tom’s house. A 35 year resident at that location, he told us how the evacuation order had been given to him at 6:30 p.m. the night of the fires. He was thankful to still have his house, but understandably seemed a bit stunned about the whole situation in the area. It is pretty amazing to me how that house is still standing, given what happened all around it.
After walking past several dozen homes and buildings that had burned down, we found ourselves at Gatlinburg Towers, talking with a man named Allen. We had learned shortly before talking with him that Allen may have been responsible for keeping his complex from catching fire. This, despite other buildings directly in front of it, and the trees and brush behind it, burning out of control.
It turns out Allen was outside with a garden hose, spraying the hillside and other areas, until midnight that night. Allen is probably in his 70s. He was out there in the middle of an extremely hot and large-scale fire, with a hose, trying to keep the flames from burning his home and his neighbors’ homes. Incredible. One nearby neighbor called him crazy for staying out there, but at the same time gave him a lot of credit for playing a direct role in saving his unit from the flames that night.
We watched as a man, who had donated his time and equipment, worked to begin the process of cleaning up the nearby buildings that had burned. It was good to see progress being made, on the road toward rebuilding.
We walked back to our hotel around noon and decided to spend the afternoon driving through Wiley Oakley Drive, one of the hardest hit areas during the fires.
Our goal was to find people and talk with them while we were in Gatlinburg for the weekend, in hopes of maybe cheering them up a little bit. Our town went through a large-scale disaster a few years ago and when the fires happened in Tennessee, we immediately felt the need to go there and just be with folks, to try and convey as best we could that it will get better.
It did not take long to realize the extent of the destruction in the Chalet Village area, and along this street in general. Property after property, reduced to piles of rubble as a result of the fires. The hills were black in many areas, appearing as though even the dirt had burned that night.
We stopped and talked with Greg from Ohio. He and his wife Teresa had a vacation home there for about 14 years and were just now seeing it for the first time in its current state.
Greg told us how they found out their house had burned by watching a video of another man’s escape down the fiery mountainside that night. You have probably seen it. (A warning, it contains some colorful language.)
Greg said he noticed the part in the video when the man was stuck at a stop sign with a tree in the road. That’s when he and Teresa backed up the video to the point where they recognized their cabin, which was on fire.
Greg motioned to the burned down home across the street and told us how his neighbor, Alice Hagler, had died there in the fires that night. She had only lived there a few months. This would not be the last time we would encounter people whose neighbors did not survive the fires.
It’s hard to imagine what that scene must have been like that night. Fires raging in every direction. It makes me so sad to think of everyone who didn’t make it out alive. Greg mentioned how the members of the Reed family lived further down the road. Constance, Chloe and Lily Reed all died in the fires.
We talked a little longer as Teresa walked through the remains of their home, then wished Greg well and continued along Wiley Oakley Drive.
Adjacent to that street, one house on Piney Butt Loop was still smoking. Keep in mind this was now almost 12 full days after the fires, and after rain had fallen in the area.
We called the fire department; the dispatcher said they had received similar calls in various other areas that day. It seemed like a fair amount of smoke to us, but it was obviously nothing, compared to what had happened. I am sure being a firefighter in that area has been a job filled with unimaginable difficulties the past few weeks. All first responders, for that matter.
Further down the way, along Skyline Drive, we met Annis. She was walking her dog while her husband, Todd, took photos of what had been their vacation home. Todd and Annis had been coming here for nearly a decade and loved the panoramic mountain views from their property. It was their first time back since the fires, as well; as much as they loved it here, they weren’t sure at that point if they would rebuild.
Annis told us how they had planned to be at that house the night of the fires, but ended up deciding against it. She was thankful for that, but also sad for their next door neighbors, John and Marilyn Tegler. The Teglers and their dog were killed in the fires.
While we were there, Annis talked with another resident of the area, who drove by to offer some assistance. He told Annis that he and his wife had gotten trapped while trying to escape the fires, and at one point the man actually called his son to tell him where their bodies would be found. His son managed to navigate them off the mountain that night. That is a call I cannot imagine making, or receiving. We were all glad to hear they were alright.
We continued our drive along Wiley Oakley Drive, encountering scenes that reminded us of the tornado in our town. So many homes destroyed, with nothing more than a foundation left behind.
We stopped and met Jim and Peggy at the site of what had become their now former home. This was their permanent residence and, like the others we had met that afternoon, they were just seeing it for the first time.
We talked with them about what had happened that night. Peggy had been in the house by herself and found her way down the mountain to safety. She didn’t know how she had made it, and I am sure it was a harrowing journey for her.
Their grandson was finding a few items in the remains of the home while we talked. First, a tire iron. Then, something more valuable. A mug, made out of a Vietnam War-era shell casing. Jim told the boy he was doing a good job and to keep looking.
Like the others we had met that day, these folks were so kind to us. This is an area with some really good people. It was a privilege to be able to talk with them.
That evening, we joined what seemed like thousands of other people in downtown Gatlinburg. As I mentioned earlier, this was only the second day for businesses being back open since the fires. The place was packed – it was so good to see this!
Gretta, our server at the restaurant where we ate, told us how numerous employees there had lost their homes in the fires. She mentioned Garrett, a single father with a 13-year-old son, who left his shift early that night to volunteer at the shelter where he was staying.
The restaurant was selling wristbands to go into a fund for the employees who were now homeless. You could see the emotion on Gretta’s face and her general manager’s face when they talked about what had happened. You could also tell this is a close knit group of people; more than just co-workers.
A little later that evening, we talked with the store owner of The Honey Pot, who has lived in Gatlinburg her whole life. Tears came to her eyes as she talked about how much it meant that people were back in town, shopping and supporting the community.
At another store, we spoke with a young man named Dylan. His grandmother had recently passed away and he was living in her house, which was to become his. The house was destroyed in the fires, along with memories of his grandmother that had not yet been moved to another location.
Dylan talked with us as though we were old friends – and also, as though nothing was wrong. He was confident that things would get back to normal and that all would be well again, soon.
At our last stop of the night, we listened to a band, that was selling CDs to raise money for fire relief efforts. As the band played, people were arm in arm, singing and just taking some time to be together. We took a few minutes to enjoy the peacefulness of that setting before heading in for the night.
Every store owner and employee we talked with, even Santa Claus greeting visitors that night, had thanked us for being there. We did nothing to deserve their thanks. The people were just so nice and welcoming and genuinely appreciative, and it left a very positive and lasting impression on us.
The following morning, we visited the temporary home of the church I mentioned earlier. In the span of a week-and-a-half, they had found a place where they could worship for a year, while the church was rebuilt. Rod, the pastor, mentioned dozens of volunteers that had come in that week, cleaning and painting the building to get it ready in time for Sunday services.
We found out that Wanda, the manager of the pancake restaurant next door, is letting the church use part of the restaurant’s parking area on Sunday mornings for as long as they are there. Sunday mornings are busy times for pancake restaurants. A nice gesture, to be sure.
Psalm books had been donated and sat on every chair in the room of the church’s temporary home. A handmade sign with the church’s name hung next to the door.
One church member, Richard, said the morning prayer in front of the congregation at the beginning of the service. In tears, he gave thanks and prayed for his community. At no time did he mention or lament his house burning to the ground. Richard personified what we had seen over and over the previous day in Gatlinburg: hope and gratitude in the midst of tragedy.
We drove out of town Sunday afternoon with many different emotions. It was an unforgettable experience. We miss the mountains and hope to be back again, soon.
God bless Gatlinburg, and everyone who was impacted by the fires. Bring peace and comfort to the family and friends of those who perished in the fires. Bring abundant blessings to this community as a whole.
If you would like to help, please do. Visit Gatlinburg and the surrounding communities. They are open for business and the people there would love to see you.
If you would like to donate money, please do. Financial help is needed. Here is the official website for donations: http://www.mountaintough.org/donate-money