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Report: $7 million blaze in downtown Gatlinburg spread after man started 'warming' fire

The fire spread early Oct. 9 from an vacant shop off the Parkway in Gatlinburg.

The fire that destroyed a downtown Gatlinburg commercial center in October started in the same vacant shop where a man's burned body was found, a Gatlinburg Fire Department investigative report states.

It's likely that fire victim Joe Martin Bates set the "warming fire" inside the empty suite in the rear of 745 Parkway early Oct. 9, the department's fire review found.

A cleaner at the nearby Loco Burro restaurant had seen Bates in the room that morning, noted the fire and "yelled at the subject to get out of there..." the Origin and Cause Statement completed this month states.

Credit: GFD
The center roof collapsed as the fire advanced.

Bates, well-known in the neighborhood and homeless, then walked out to the Parkway and down to the front on the Parkway side, but returned soon after without the cleaner's knowledge.

Fire crews found Bates' body lying on the floor of Suite 4 when they finally were able to get close enough to inspect what had happened.

The damage estimate for the complex and its contents was $7 million, Fire Marshal Josh Tucker's report shows.

The report summarizes what investigators found based on eyewitness reports and evidence at the scene. Tucker and TBI Special Agent Randy Woods, brought in to assist in the investigation, reviewed all the information gathered.

"Investigators believe the fire is accidental in nature based on the investigation, witness statements, burn patterns and fire effects," the report states.

Credit: GFD
The fire the morning of Oct. 9.


Gatlinburg Fire was alerted to the blaze at the Fountain Plaza center at 6:39 a.m. Oct. 9. A woman leaving the nearby Ripley's Aquarium smelled smoke, spotted the flames and called 911.

Multiple Gatlinburg units responded, along with mutual aid from Pigeon Forge, Sevierville Fire, and Pittman Center.

Fire quickly spread through the largely wooden structure of about 8,600 square feet, which included Suite 4 and other vacant shops in a plaza to the rear, records state. The blaze then advanced to the Parkway side where Puckers bar as well as Cafe 420 operated, records state.

The vacant section was set for demolition, and a chain link fence had been erected to curtail trespassers from accessing the empty shops.

The suite where Bates started the fire had once been a photo store, a Gatlinburg Police Department report shows. He was known to frequent the area, the report states.

Fire personnel stayed on the scene about 31 hours. An emergency demolition was sought "due to the health and safety of the citizens and visitors in the event of a full structure collapse."

Credit: GFD
The rear courtyard of the commercial center.

"Due to the integrity of the structure a limited scene examination was conducted and other accidental causes were unable to be ruled out," the report's conclusion states. "The classification of this fire is ruled undetermined."

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