Strangers helping strangers. That's what an East Tennessee community is doing for a family, visiting from out of the area, dealing with death and recovery. This story began early Saturday morning in Sevier County.
A head-on collision happened on Wears Valley Road. Maryville resident, Shaun Dunlap, 27, was heading south from Gatlinburg toward Blount County. He told THP troopers he might have fallen asleep at the wheel when his truck crossed the center line and crashed into a small car carrying a family from India.
Ashish Dembla, 24, and both of his parents died on impact. His sister survived, but was critically injured. She was flown by Lifestar to UT Medical Center in Knoxville, all alone, suffering from back and neck injuries.
Kanika Dembla, 20, remains in UT Medical Center Thursday night in stable condition. Her journey to physical and emotional healing is just beginning.
"It was a shock, big shock that mother, father, son, disappeared at the same time," said Harbans Singla, a member of the Hindi Community Center of Knoxville.
Kanika had no family support until Sunday when a cousin, Seema Iyer, arrived from New Jersey. Another cousin followed, arriving from Louisiana.
Iyer told 10News in a phone interview that dealing with losing three family members, and another who was severely injured, is difficult. She also talked about a group of people she didn't know, with only a cultural connection to the family, that was providing "overwhelming support."
"They have nobody here. I came forward to ask them if they need any kind of help," said Govind Shah, owner of the Inn of Knoxville.
Shah has given Kanika's family, some who traveled to East Tennessee from India, free hotel rooms while they are in town to see Kanika and grieve over the rest of her immediate family.
"This is our nature since our church or temple, they teach us to help anybody who needs help," said Shah.
Shah and his wife are members of the Hindu Community Center. It's a temple located in Lenoir City, not far from the Knox County boundary, that 500 local Indian families call their place of worship. Dozens of its members mobilized along with Shah.
They are providing Kanika's family with daily transportation to and from the hospital, something they plan to do for the family as long as the family needs transport. Volunteers even made sure Kanika's brother and parents were given a traditional Last Rites on Wednesday morning.
The temple provided flowers for the cremation ceremony held in Alcoa and dozens of temple members paid their respects to the Dembla family.
"They wanted to cremate here, so once they cremate it is our moral obligation to and we feel comfortable, it's our moral duty we need to help them out," said Singla.
UT Medical Center Lab Technician Pallavi Bhatt has helped out too. Iyer said Bhatt was the first person to reach out to to the family bringing them several home cooked Indian meals.
"That's the first thing you need to get the strength. Once you have the strength you can take care of the patient, take care of the rest of the family," explained Bhatt.
While Kanika Dembla has lost her immediate family, her extended family now includes a group of strangers far from home.
"That's human nature. That's the way all human beings should be," said volunteer, Saraswathi Subramanian.
While the loss from the accident cannot be undone, those caring for Kanika wanted East Tennessee to know about the blessing of selfless strangers.
Kanika Dembla's family tells 10Nws she will stay at UT Medical Center for a couple of weeks. Then she needs extensive rehabilitation. They aren't sure if she will stay with family in the United States for that or if she will return to India to fully heal.
The Dembla family's ashes will be taken back to India where they will be set free in a river, according to Hindu tradition.
As for Shaun Dunlap, he remains in the hospital, also in stable condition. THP said he could face criminal charges and traffic citations pending the outcome of the investigation.