Death Toll Rises to 11 in Tennessee Wildfires

by | December 2, 2016

By Tyler Whetstone
 
The death toll has climbed to 11 people in the fire that tore through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and this resort town earlier in the week, with the search still on for others, authorities said Thursday.
 
Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Dean Flener said he'd been notified Thursday night of the most recent death. He said he had no specifics, including where the body was found or whether the person died in a hospital.
 
Sevier County authorities said they weren't aware of an 11th death.
 
Three victims have been identified by family members, but officials wouldn't confirm those identifications.
 
"I'll reiterate what a distressing and depressing time it is for all of us and particularly these families," Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said.
 
Gatlinburg Police Chief Randy Brackins fought back tears at a morning news conference as he described the crawling pace of the search and rescue process.
 
"It's one of the most difficult things you can imagine," he said. "I know you're frustrated. If it were my family members, I'd be frustrated."
 
Firefighters and emergency crews continued to work their way through fire-ravaged remote areas of Gatlinburg and surrounding Sevier County amid blocked roads, downed power lines, fallen trees and mudslides. Searchers divided the terrain into four zones and expected to finish searching all four by nightfall Thursday, Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said.
 
About 200 firefighters, including various crews from agencies across the state, remained on the ground, with about 20 percent of the force still fighting flames and the rest focused on the search, he said. National Guardsmen and Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers fanned out to help conduct health and welfare checks at more than 70-plus homes, marking driveways to indicate whether occupants were safe.
 
"We're never going to give up hope. I will always hold out hope of a rescue," the fire chief said. "But now we are at hour 65 since the beginning of the fires. We have to come to the realization that the potential is great it will be more of a recovery (of corpses) than a rescue."
 
Some of the searchers have lost homes and family members of their own. Most stayed at their duties despite being told to take breaks, Miller said.
 
"Just like me, just like them and just like you, we've never seen anything like this before," he said. "Most people are numb, but they care about finding these people. They're sleeping on the floor. They don't want to go home."
 
Estimates place the number of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed at more than 700 so far -- about 300 inside the Gatlinburg city limits and another 400 in neighboring Pigeon Forge and unincorporated communities such as Wears Valley and Cobbly Nob. A map will be posted online with updates in real time on the status of damaged properties, officials said, but that map wasn't complete Thursday night.
 
All fires inside the city limits were out by Thursday with the exception of a few hot spots, Waters said.
 
Authorities said forecasts of more wind and continued dry conditions mean the danger's not over.
 
"We don't want any of our recent precipitation to give any false sense of security, because fire is a tremendous beast," Miller said.
 
Alice Hagler, missing from Chalet Village, a collection of rental cabins, was one of the three dead found in that neighborhood, her son has confirmed. Memphis couple Jon and Janet Summers, who'd also been staying in Chalet Village, apparently died there, according to Jon Summers' brother, Jim.
 
Authorities have not released the names of any of the dead, and Gatlinburg Police Chief Randy Brackins referred all questions to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. TBI spokeswoman Leslie Earhart said identifications would be handled by medical examiners -- an indication remains might have to be identified by dental records.
 
Besides the three bodies initially found in Chalet Village, another was found Tuesday in a room at the Travelers Motel off U.S. Highway 321. Three more had been found by Wednesday afternoon -- all three in a home on Campbell Lead Road.
 
Authorities have not provided a list of residents unaccounted for. The TBI has set up a hotline for people to call at 800-TBI-FIND if they believe a loved one is missing. The hotline has received nearly 100 calls over the past 24 hours, with agents following up about 70 leads from those calls, Earhart said. She gave no details on any specific cases.
 
Eighty people have been treated at LeConte Medical Center for fire-related injuries, authorities said, with some still hospitalized. Three suffered burns serious enough for treatment at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
 
Fire officials said the damage total includes about 300 buildings inside the Gatlinburg city limits and another 400 in neighboring Pigeon Forge and outlying unincorporated communities. That's on top of more than 17,100 acres consumed since the blaze began last week in the remote Chimney Tops area of the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
 
Investigators suspect that fire to be "human-caused," park Superintendent Cassius Cash said. The fire continued to rage through brush, deadwood and fallen leaves Thursday, and park officials warned recent rains haven't done enough to relieve the four-month drought that made the fire possible.
 
"The fire is not out," said Mark Jamieson, chief of the fire management team for the park. "It is just knocked down."
 
The U.S Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has joined the "initial stages" of the investigation into the fire's cause, ATF spokesman Michael Knight said. That involvement doesn't necessarily mean the probe will lead to any arrests, he said.
 
Since the fire's start Nov. 23 on the Chimney Tops trail, the flames have spread to more than 6,200 acres outside the park. By Monday morning, the flames had spread by embers carried on the wind to the Twin Creeks community but didn't appear to pose an immediate threat to the city, Miller said.
 
That changed by 6 p.m. when wind speeds doubled to more than 90 mph, toppling power lines and scattering embers for miles, he said.
 
"We went from nothing to over 20-plus structure fires in a matter of minutes," the fire chief said. "I don't have a great understanding of it myself, because it's so unfathomable."
 
The fire displaced more than 14,000 residents from Gatlinburg alone, many of whom fled home Monday night in the dark with nothing more than what they could carry. Most have found lodging with friends or family.
 
The head count at emergency shelters Wednesday night had fallen to 240 people, according to the American Red Cross.
 
Authorities have reopened access to Gatlinburg from the post office to the eastern city limits and hope to reopen the Parkway and River Road by Wednesday, City Manager Cindy Ogle said. Side streets will reopen later, she said.
 
A curfew will be in place again Thursday from 6 p.m.-6 a.m.
 
Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his home and business in the fire, said the city's spirit still stands tall.
 
"Gatlinburg is the people," he said. "That's what Gatlinburg is. It's not the buildings. It's the people."
 
Besides the search for missing loved ones, calls continue to come in about missing pets. Authorities have asked that information on specific animals be provided to the county humane society at sevierhumane.org or on the society's Facebook page.
 
The Red Cross still has an abundance of food, water, clothing and other items, and has asked people to make only monetary donations for now. Donations may be made by calling 866-586-4483 or 865-430-7384.
 
A Pigeon Forge business donated $100,000 to relief efforts Wednesday, and country music icon Dolly Parton, Sevier County's most famous native, pledged to donate $1,000 per month for six months to every family who lost a home in the fire.
 
U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander said they would work with local authorities to ensure funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was timely and useful. They plan to tour areas hit by the fire Friday.
 
The state Department of Labor will work with local agencies to help expedite applications for unemployment insurance, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said. Insurance adjusters will be on hand as well.
 

(c)2016 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)