Inside the Park Vista hotel
Nov. 28, 4 p.m. – On the hills above Gatlinburg, just north of the park boundary, smoke tainted the air in the lobby of the Park Vista. The flames of the Chimney Tops 2 fire were still out of sight, but the lingering smell of smoke kept the fire on some guests’ minds. Still, firefighters in the area told guests they should be fine in the 300-room hotel.
It wasn't long after, though, that flames could be seen burning further down the hill. Park Vista Road – the only road to and from the hotel – was no longer a viable option. The flames had overtaken the road, cutting off any chance of evacuation.
One guest, Logan Baker, said some guests tried to make a break for it anyway, only to find the parking lot on fire. As he and his aunt tried to bring those guests back to safety, Logan said the strength of the wind and the heat of the flames were an overpowering force.
“When you opened the doors, it just blew you back. Embers started flying into the hotel," Baker said.
Now firefighters gathered everyone in the center of the lobby. Dozens of workers and guests, all waiting and watching through giant windows as firefighters worked to drive the fire away from the building.
By 7:58 p.m., thoughts turned to survival as the smoke detectors blared in the background.
“We’re going to dive into the pool is what we’re going to do," said one person in that lobby.
“But they locked the pool up!” another answered.
Across the lobby, Christa Fordan curled up with her son and nephew. Smoke no longer lingered among the rafters – a growing cloud was now pressing down on the people huddled in the lobby. Those who could put on surgical masks to try and keep the smoke from filling their lungs. Fordan and the kids were fortunate to have those masks, but all too soon, the ash and soot turned their masks first grey, then black.
While she comforted the kids, Fordan’s thoughts ran through what was to come. In her mind, before the flames ever reached the hotel, the smoke would already have killed everyone huddled inside.
“I knew we only had minutes and we would eventually pass out. And I remember thinking I was so thankful that we would pass out, so that they wouldn't have to experience anything more devastating than what they had already experienced," she said.
It was with those thoughts that she pulled out a piece of paper and wrote out her name, age and those of her son and nephew so their remains could later be identified. She then added a final message to their family.
“We love you … we are cuddling, calm, and at peace.”
The end never came. According to Baker, by 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, there were only small fires still burning outside the hotel. The Park Vista had been spared, and guests were allowed to return to their rooms. While some watched from above as the flames continue to rage through downtown Gatlinburg, others were simply grateful for their safety.
"We were fighting for our lives,” Fordan said. “All of us. The police, firefighters and the crew, and we all almost didn't make it.”