Es­cap­ing wild­fires meant flee­ing through hell-like land­scape

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Steve Me­gargee and Jonathan Mat­tise

GATLIN­BURG, TENN. >> With flames drip­ping from tree branches and the air filled with em­bers, thou­sands of peo­ple raced through a hellish land­scape as they fled wild­fires that killed three peo­ple and de­stroyed hun­dreds of homes and a re­sort in the Great Smoky Moun­tains.

Fanned by hur­ri­cane­force winds, the flames reached the doorstep of Dol­ly­wood, the theme park named af­ter coun­try mu­sic leg­end and lo­cal hero Dolly Par­ton. But the at­trac­tion was spared sig­nif­i­cant dam­age.

The fires spread quickly on Mon­day night, when winds top­ping 87 mph whipped up the flames, catch­ing res­i­dents and tourists in the Gatlin­burg area by sur­prise. Police banged on front doors and told peo­ple to get out im­me­di­ately. Some trekked 20 min­utes to catch life­sav­ing rides on trol­leys usu­ally re­served for tours and wed­ding par­ties.

“There was fire ev­ery­where. It was like we were in hell,” said Linda Mon­hol­land, who was work­ing at Park View Inn in Gatlin­burg when she and five other peo­ple fled on foot. “Walk­ing through hell, that’s what it was. I can’t be­lieve it. I never want to see some­thing like that again in my life, ever.”

“Hell opened up,” her co­worker Sissy Stin­nett said.

In all, more than 14,000 res­i­dents and tourists were forced to evac­u­ate the tourist city in the moun­tains, where some hotspots per­sisted and a cur­few in place Tues­day night.

No de­tails on the deaths were im­me­di­ately avail­able. More than a dozen peo­ple were in­jured.

The ex­tent of the dam­age be­gan to emerge even as smoke from the wild­fires lin­gered late Tues­day af­ter­noon.

The Cas­tle, per­haps the largest and most iconic home in Gatlin­burg, was de­stroyed. So was Cupid’s Chapel of Love, a wed­ding venue.

En­tire churches were gone. Scorched cars parked out­side set on their rims af­ter their tires had melted away. The only sound came from the eerie screech of ho­tel fire alarms echo­ing through the empty streets.

Some Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions on lamp­posts and util­ity poles were on fire.

Marci Claude, a spokes­woman for both the city and the Gatlin­burg Con­ven­tion and Vis­i­tors Bureau, choked up as she sur­veyed the dam­age for the first time on a me­dia tour.

“I’m just as­ton­ished this is my town,” she said.

On an aerial and driv­ing tour of the dam­age in and around Gatlin­burg, Gov. Bill Haslam said he was struck by the seem­ingly ran­dom na­ture of the fire that de­stroyed some struc­tures and left oth­ers un­touched. Not­ing that much of the down­town en­ter­tain­ment district was un­dam­aged, Haslam said “it just could have been so much worse.”

As dark­ness fell on the area near the Great Smoky Moun­tains Na­tional Park, open flames could still be seen burn­ing near razed homes.

A line of strong to marginally se­vere storms was ex­pected in east Ten­nessee on Tues­day night and into early Wed­nes­day morn­ing, with dam­ag­ing straight­line winds of up to 60 mph and light­ning pos­si­ble.

Gatlin­burg Fire Chief Greg Miller said of­fi­cials were still con­duct­ing search-and-res­cue mis­sions.

“We have not been able to get in all of the ar­eas,” Miller said. “We pray that we don’t ex­pe­ri­ence any more fa­tal­i­ties, but there are still ar­eas that we are try­ing to get to” be­cause of downed trees and power lines.

Though wild­fires have been burn­ing for sev­eral weeks across the drought­stricken South, with rain­fall 10 to 15 inches be­low nor­mal over the past three months in many parts, Mon­day marked the first time any homes and businesses were de­stroyed on a large scale.

The fire that roared through Gatlin­burg ac­tu­ally be­gan last week in the na­tional park, and fierce winds car­ried burn­ing em­bers into the city, park of­fi­cials said. That orig­i­nal fire is be­lieved to have been caused by peo­ple, na­tional fire man­agers said in a report. Whether it was in­ten­tion­ally set or an ac­ci­dent hasn’t been ex­plained by au­thor­i­ties.

Af­ter the fire es­caped the park, flames spread fur­ther when winds blew trees onto power lines, spark­ing new fires and shoot­ing em­bers over long dis­tances. Hun­dreds of homes and other build­ings, in­clud­ing a 16-story ho­tel, were dam­aged or de­stroyed.

Emer­gency of­fi­cials or­dered evac­u­a­tions in down­town Gatlin­burg and Pi­geon Forge and in other ar­eas of Se­vier County near the Great Smoky Moun­tains.

About 1,200 peo­ple took shel­ter at the Gatlin­burg Com­mu­nity Cen­ter and the Rocky Top Sports Park, an 80-acre sports fa­cil­i­ty­turned-shel­ter.

Tammy Dil­lon had just come home from work when police banged on her door about 9:30 p.m. Mon­day. She said she drove through a fiery scene to get to Rocky Top Sports World, where she spent the night in a car.

“We drove through flames, over hot em­bers in the road. It was aw­ful,” Dil­lon said.

In down­town Gatlin­burg, work­ers at Ri­p­ley’s Aquar­ium of the Smok­ies left be­hind more than 10,000 fish and other an­i­mals. Police es­corted a team of marine bi­ol­o­gists and life sup­port ex­perts back into the aquar­ium Tues­day, and the an­i­mals were do­ing fine, Ri­p­ley’s said in a news re­lease.

Based on pre­lim­i­nary sur­veys, the West­gate Smoky Moun­tain Re­sort & Spa in Gatlin­burg “is likely en­tirely gone,” the Ten­nessee Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency an­nounced.

Although Dol­ly­wood was not dam­aged, more than a dozen cab­ins op­er­ated by the park were.

Dol­ly­wood sus­pended op­er­a­tions through at least Wed­nes­day. Its DreamMore re­sort will be open on a limited ba­sis as a shel­ter and for reg­is­tered guests.

Par­ton said in a state­ment Tues­day that she was heart­bro­ken.

“I am pray­ing for all the fam­i­lies af­fected by the fire and the fire­fight­ers who are work­ing so hard to keep everyone safe,” Par­ton said.

Pa­trick Sours, who lived with his fam­ily in a Gatlin­burg mo­tel that was prob­a­bly de­stroyed, said he doesn’t think re­al­ity has set in for most peo­ple.

“It hasn’t fully kicked in that, hey, we’re home­less,” he said. “We have no job. We have noth­ing.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Polo Gu­tier­rez climbs onto the foun­da­tion of a de­stroyed home Tues­day to try and see if his apart­ment build­ing is still stand­ing in Gatlin­burg, Tenn., af­ter a wild­fire swept through the area Mon­day.

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