The state has lost recordings of emergency responders' phone calls made during the height of the Sevier County wildfires.
The recordings, from Nov. 28, were of calls to and from the central Emergency Operations Center (EOC) established by the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency in Nashville.
Smoke choked Gatlinburg that day, and as night fell, high winds spread fire from the Great Smoky Mountains into surrounding Sevier County. Fourteen people died, and more than 2,500 structures were burned or damaged.
The State EOC was activated Nov. 10. All calls coming in and out are usually automatically recorded.
“The data forensics firm’s initial determination indicates the recording system overloaded as a result of the volume of calls into the system during the catastrophic fires on Nov. 28, 2016," said Dean Flener, TEMA spokesperson.
Calls from the next day are still there, said Flener, because the volume of calls dropped. The system, a Vertical IP 2500, automatically deletes older calls as storage fills up.
TEMA is not required to record these calls, he said, and is not aware of any other lost wildfire data.
The recordings could potentially have shed light on immediate response to the devastating wildfires.
The Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivors group voiced outrage at the loss of the calls during a press conference Friday afternoon.
"We were outraged by this apparent cover-up of government accountability," said Lorraine Rutherford, a member of the group.
The group said there needed to be better safeguards in place to preserve the phone calls during the height of the wildfires, and say the calls could have given better insight into the initial fire response.
The group blames TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan, and called for him to resign.
"Instead under Sheehan's direction, TEMA chose to cross their fingers and hope the system was working. TEMA failed," Rutherford said.
TEMA pinned the loss on the huge number of calls coming into the EOC. The backup system failed in Oct. 2016, Flener said, without employees realizing it. The system did not alert employees of the failure.
"How can any state agency learn from their mistakes when the system used to record those mistakes suddenly loses all of them? Simply outrageous," said group member Darlene Verito.
Flener does not believe the missing recordings contained evacuation discussions. He says the majority of that occurred in the Gatlinburg EOC over cell phones.
The Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivors group initially planned to hold their press conference at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in downtown Gatlinburg, but the the hotel asked the group to leave.
The hotel released a statement saying it does not wish to be part of any "negative rhetoric" surrounding the community.
"We, at the Courtyard by Marriott-Gatlinburg Downtown, do not wish to be a part of any negative rhetoric towards our Gatlinburg Community. We have the utmost trust and confidence in our city and county officials. We feel that this meeting today was to bring negativity towards our officials and community. Our full support goes out to our city and county officials as they deal with ways to offer a positive solution during our recovery period," the statement said. The hotel later sent a longer statement, which you can read in full at the bottom of this article.
Recovery Attempts & Investigation Impact
TEMA hired an outside forensics firm, DSIcovery of Nashville, to attempt to recover the calls, but that effort has so far been mostly unsuccessful. Only three calls have been recovered from Nov. 28, Flener said.
DSI inspected the computer July 10.
The first was at 9:44 p.m. from a news media outlet. The second, at 10:31 CST, was between TEMA Watch Point and North Carolina's EOC regarding contact with Sevier County. The third call came at 10:32 p.m., and was the state Department of Health asking about nursing homes in Sevier County.
According to the DSI report provided by TEMA, the system's automatic backup failed sometime in October 2016. Someone ran a manual backup on December 8th, the report states.
"Based on my examination of the computers and the related witness statements, it is my opinion that there was no intentional or malicious deletions of the call recordings from November 28th," wrote DSI forensic examiner Charles Snipes. "The calls were lost as a result of the file buffer being full."
Reached by phone, Snipes said he couldn't comment further.
TEMA is cooperating with it's federal counterpart, FEMA, for an after-action report on the fires.
10News reached out to Governor Haslam for comment.
“The governor is aware of the recording system issue, and he supports TEMA’s efforts to recover those recordings and the work of the data forensics firm currently trying to determine what happened,” said spokesperson Jennifer Donnals. “FEMA is assisting with an after action report (AAR) for the wildfire season – including the devastating fires in Sevier County – and that will be reviewed when completed. It is our understanding that the AAR for this tragic event won’t be affected by this issue.”
Full statement from Courtyard by Marriott-Gatlinburg Downtown:'s Eric Treadway:
"We at the Courtyard by Marriott want to be supportive of our community and its recovery moving forward. Through a misunderstanding, we were under the impression that TEMA was going to conduct a press conference in our meeting space. Later we learned that this was not the case. This was an attempt of a few to continue to bring negativity to the Gatlinburg recovery, therefore we asked them not to conduct their press conference on our property. The Courtyard by Marriott- Gatlinburg Downtown has done a lot to support our community and those impacted by the fires. We have given our space away, for free, to several organizations to help those affected. Within our company we had 17 employees lose everything they own. We have worked and fought hard to help them get back on their feet. We feel that these few people who continue to want to bring negativity to our community are only hurting Gatlinburg, surrounding communities, and especially our team members who had real losses. We have deep sympathy for those who have had loss, and may be struggling with recovery. We want to continue in our efforts to help our team members and community.
We have confidence that our City and County Officials did all they could on November 28th during an event that no one could have foreseen. We know they will do all they can moving forward to improve our City and County if such an event were to ever happen again. We look forward to our government officials announcing their findings and hearing about the planned improvements moving forward."