The owners of the 50-year-old photo shop and concession stand at the top of the Gatlinburg Skylift knew around 10 p.m. on Nov. 28 that their business was gone.
Bryan Tarkington and Brian Jensen, co-owners of Crockett Mountain Concessions, got a call from their alarm company that the fire alarms were going off.
“The priority of the first responders was getting the people out of the town. It was just too overwhelming for them to respond to all the fires that was going on. There was too many of them,” Tarkington said.
The wildfire started in the Chimney Tops area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fueled by 80 mile-per-hour winds, the embers flew into the town of Gatlinburg on Nov. 28, burning more than 2,400 structures and killing 14 people.
The owners couldn’t reach the business for several days as emergency crews went from building to building searching for those who didn’t make it out.
“My wife, Tina, was of course looking online. We were trying to see pictures of our location and she was trying to help us out to get a better grasp of what the damage was because no one was allowed in,” Tarkington said.
She came across a photo that showed soldiers around a tattered American flag flying proudly on a flag pole, with everything else around it burned to ashes. But she recognized the view and observation deck and realized that it was Crockett Mountain Concession’s flag.
“It was such a great moment. Knowing, believing that everything was gone, that our flag was still there. And intact. And we were going to be able to get our hands back on it,” Tarkington said.
Soldiers from the Tennessee National Guard’s 278th Armored Calvary Unit were on a search and rescue mission when they came across the flag on Campbell Lead Road.
“The crazy thing was it was so hot on the mountain that when you were on the road you could feel the heat coming off the ground. Definitely a lot of destruction. To see something like that still hanging still surviving, it was pretty neat,” said Sgt. Joshua Karep of the 278th.
The soldiers took the flag down and brought it to the armory for safe keeping. It became a symbol of hope to them and other soldiers at their armory .
“It was a sign that we’re going to rebuild. We can lose a lot of things around us in our communities but we always seem to find our way back. That’s what it meant to me. That’s why we wear the uniform,” Sgt. Karep said.
“It was an inspiration to me that in the end, it would be alright,” said Sgt. Tony Anthony of the 278th.
Jensen and Tarkington were able to get the flag back and are in the process of getting it framed to hang in their shop when they rebuild.
“It was the only thing I cared about getting back. It was so important. It gave me hope that we are going to rebuild. It was tattered. It survived though,” said Jensen, who served in the Army Reserves for eight years.
Jensen and Tarkington want to use it as a reminder of the devastation the community experienced and how everyone came together to help.
“You come back in a year, you’ll see the hope and how we rise through the ashes. We’ll be stronger and better than we were before,” Jensen said.
The family took the flag back to the site of their business this week, and their little girl was very inspired by the site! 3-year-old Meggie did the Pledge of Allegiance while standing proudly beneath it.