Breaking News
More () »

What we knew then: The 1st week of wildfire coverage

A look back at the first week of our coverage of the Sevier County wildfires in November and December of 2016.

Sevier County, Tenn. — It's been two years since the wildfire that devastated parts of Gatlinburg and Sevier County on the night of November 28, 2016, taking 14 lives and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.

We've learned a lot since then, about what started the fire, how it spread, and the impact it had on those who were forced to flee for their lives that night. But it's interesting to go back and look at our coverage of the fires from that first week, as officials and the community were reacting to the disaster.

Day One: Monday, November 28, 2016

In the hours before the Chimney Tops 2 fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread out of control into populated areas, we were reporting on it, but it was just one of the dozens of wildfires burning thousands of acres across East Tennessee. We couldn't know then just how much worse it was going to get.

Ironically, we  posted a story early on that Monday morning about Sevier County's own Dolly Parton releasing a video public service announcement warning about the wildfire danger.

“This extended drought has resulted in high wildfire danger,” Parton said in the video. “As dry as it is, please help firefighters avoid wildfires.”

No one knew then how prophetic those words would be for Parton's beloved mountains, and that it was already too late to prevent it.

"Heavy smoke from the fire is visible in Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, and there are reports of ash falling from the sky," we wrote in this story, last updated around 9:30 p.m. on Monday. The fire had already started threatening lives and homes, but we still didn't know the magnitude of the danger because of communication difficulties in Sevier County. A few evacuations had started and been communicated to the media when this story was published.

The first indications to the outside world about how dangerous the fires were came from social media. People trying to get out of danger were posting pictures and videos of the fire and their escapes on Facebook and Twitter. We gathered some of those first survivor stories here.

Families trapped at the Park Vista hotel, which was surrounded on all sides by fire, contemplated jumping in the swimming pool as a last ditch effort to escape the flames, and one mom even wrote her family's names on slips of paper so they could be identified after their death.

One man documented his terrifying trip down the mountain on Facebook as he and his brother escaped from Chalet Village.

"In the videos, you can see fire burning on both sides of the road, tall trees ablaze, and embers flying through the air. You can barely see the road through the thick smoke as they try to navigate around fallen trees and other debris," we wrote.

It became clear that a major catastrophe was unfolding in Sevier County, especially in the area around Gatlinburg. We were all worried that not everyone would make it out alive, but it was too soon to know how many lives would be lost or changed forever.

More than a dozen shelters were opened as leaders enacted mandatory evacuations. No one really knew how much of the city of Gatlinburg was on fire except for those who were in the middle of it. Phone and internet service was failing, and even emergency crews were having difficulty communicating with each other. Our crews that were in Gatlinburg were unable to establish signals to update the station or to provide live reports.

There was a major concern that first night for the animals at the Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. The workers got out safely but were worried about the more than 10-thousand fish and animals they had to leave behind.

General Manager Ryan DeSear told 10News a "raging fire" was about 50 yards away from the aquarium when he was forced to leave. It wasn't until noon the next day that we learned that the building was spared, and the animals were safe.

Dollywood was also on many people's minds that night--- it's a place so many people have visited over the years, and one of the area's biggest employers. We knew there were fires very near the theme park that night, and that several cabins and guests at DreamMore resort were evacuated. In the end, the park was spared, but several cabins were burned. Dollywood was closed for several days that week and had many employees impacted by the fires.

The birds at Dollywood's Eagle Mountain Sanctuary could not be evacuated that night, but their keepers kept an eye on nest cameras to make sure they were okay, and so did we. We even pulled up the cameras on their website in the newsroom to make sure they were still there. It was one of the only ways we knew to check on the status of Dollywood in the early hours. It was hard to see anything in the smoke-filled darkness, but you could hear emergency sirens and occasionally the sounds of the birds.

Day 2: Tuesday, November 29, 2016

While impacted residents of Sevier County were living a nightmare and emergency officials were scrambling to help as many of them as possible, the rest of East Tennessee slept.

They woke up to devastating news.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency released some of the first official information about the fire. By 9:30 a.m., we knew that hundreds of buildings had burned and that 14,000 people had been evacuated. There were no reports yet of any fatalities. Those early TEMA reports actually held some misinformation--- that Ober Gatlinburg had been destroyed. That turned out not to be true.

We started putting together a story with a list of what we did know about buildings and attractions in the area. That story, which we compiled from information from several sources, was clicked on by millions of people across the country as they tried to find out what happened to favorite vacation attractions or rental property. We didn't know all of the answers and were unable to help the many people who called the newsroom asking for information about specific areas.

That's where people learned we had lost places like the Buckberry Lodge and Alamo Steakhouse, but that attractions like Hillbilly Golf and the beloved Arrowmont School were spared.

At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, city and county officials held their first in a series of press conferences where we eventually learned the true and devastating impact of that night. This story documents those updates for the first couple of weeks. In the first one, they called it "a fire for the history books" and said they wouldn't stop until they reached every house to check on the public's safety.

Firefighters, police officers and other emergency personnel from all over the region had already begun a massive search and recovery effort. In some areas, fires were still burning. Many roads were blocked by trees and other debris, and residents were told to stay out of town.

As we visited area shelters that Tuesday, we started to hear about the missing. Families were desperate for word about their loved ones, and while some were eventually found safe, we began to fear the worst.

That's when we first met Michael Reed, a man whose desperate search for his family touched hearts across the country. In a live interview, he told us about his wife Constance and their daughters, Chloe and Lily. He and his son left their home to see how close the fire was, and while they were gone, Constance called to tell him the flames were right next door. Reed was unable to get back to them.

By 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday, we learned that three bodies had been found, but we didn't know who they were.

Meanwhile, help started pouring into Sevier County. In addition to emergency crews from across the region who were assisting in search and recovery efforts, volunteers and donations started arriving. We compiled a long list of organizations that were collecting supplies and money for victims that we continued to update and evaluate in the following weeks.

Day 3: Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Two days after the fires, the search efforts continued. A fourth body was found but was still unidentified. A curfew was still in place, and the majority of Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas was still closed. Most residents still didn't know if their home was still standing.

City and county leaders, while updating us on the grim reality of the fire's damage, were already sending a message that the area would recover.

“We’re going to be OK – that’s our message – we’re going to be OK," Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said. "If you really want to do something for Gatlinburg ... come back and visit us…. The beauty of this right now is we have so many people wanting to help it’s almost overwhelming. We’re going to be aback on our feet, we’re going to be OK.”

Werner, like many members of the community, lost his home and his business in the fires.

Dolly Parton surprised no one when she announced a major effort to help wildfire victims.

"I've always believed charity begins at home and my home is someplace special. That's why I've asked my Dollywood Companies—including the Dollywood theme park, and DreamMore Resort; my dinner theater attractions including Dixie Stampede and Lumberjack Adventure; and my Dollywood Foundation—to help me establish the My People Fund," she said.

The fund would provide $1,000 each month to Sevier County families who lost their homes "until they get back up on their feet," she said

The death toll from the fire climbed to 7 by Wednesday evening, and we were told that at least 53 people had sought medical treatment after the fires.

We also learned of a miraculous rescue. An Alabama couple, trying to evacuate the Westgate Resort, became trapped in an elevator. It wasn't until later that we learned the full details of Reba and Joe Williams ordeal. The couple was trapped for hours and were sure they were going to die. When firefighters finally reached them, the building they were in was almost fully engulfed in flames. They did not have much time left.

"We had said our goodbyes to each other and I saw Jesus in the white light but he wasn’t ready for us yet," Reba Williams told her rescuers when she finally spoke to them a week later.

Westgate was one of the 300 or so structures confirmed destroyed in Gatlinburg at that time, according to Gatlinburg Fire Department Chief Greg Miller.

Day 4: Thursday, December 1, 2016 

Crews continued to search for survivors of the fires, but a grim reality was starting to set in.,

"But now that we are at hour 65, from the beginning of the fires, we have to come to a realization that the potential is great that it could be more of a recovery than a rescue. but we will always hold out hope," Fire Chief Miller said at a morning update.

By the end of the day, the death toll would rise to 11 people, and we started to learn the names of some of those we had lost.

Alice Hagler, 70, was recovering from hip replacement surgery in her home in Chalet Village. She made a desperate call to her son around 8:30 p.m. on Monday.

"My mother called me frantically that the house was on fire, yelling that the house was on fire, and I told her to get out of the house," James Wood said, then the phone went dead. He tried to reach her, but the flames turned him back.

Firefighters told Wood that his mother never made it out of the house.

Jon and Janet Summers, both 61, of Memphis had come to Gatlinburg with their three adult sons for a birthday celebration. They were staying in Chalet Village which was consumed by fire. The family tried to evacuate by car, but the road was blocked by debris. They then tried to flee on foot but became separated. The three brothers finally made it down the mountain. They survived with serious injuries, but their parents did not survive.

A total of 266 people were still staying in the two Red Cross shelters in Sevier County, most at the Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg.

Officials also revealed that homeowners would finally be allowed back into the area on Friday to check on their property.

That evening, all of the local television stations joined forces to raise money for wildfire victims. More than $270,000 was raised in the 12-hour telethon.

Day 5: Friday, December 2, 2016

As residents were allowed back into their homes for the first time, we learned there were now 13 dead as a result of the fires. Officials said 12 of the victims died as a direct result of the fire and one died from a heart attack from smoke inhalation as she ran from the flames.

That was May Vance. She and her husband Jimmy managed to flee the fire, but after suffering severe smoke inhalation, May had a heart attack. She passed away two days later.

A Canadian couple that had just spent Thanksgiving with their daughter in their Chalet Village vacation home were also confirmed dead. John Tegler, 71, and wife Marilyn Tegler, 70, were from Woodstock, Ontario. Their daughter told 10News that the couple loved spending time in the Smokies. She left on Sunday to return to her home in Georgia, and her parents were supposed to leave on Monday, but not before the fires claimed their lives.

Thousands of people did escape, and we shared one elderly couple's amazing survival story.

Daryl and Robert Hullander escaped on foot when their neighborhood went up in flames. The couple, who had been married 57 years, joined hands and fled down the mountainside to safety.

"Fire was blowing across the road, so I didn't know of another way to get down from where we were easy," Robert Hullander said. "So you just cover up your mouth and we'll run right straight through it."

The two made it down with only minor injuries.

Some animals miraculously survived the fires as well, including Charles the pig.

Rob Holmes and his family had moments to evacuate their home as the fire advanced. They had to leave everything behind, including their pet pig.

"Basically we drove through fire, we drove through hell, I've never seen anything like it in my whole life," he told us.

The next day, Holmes got word that his home was destroyed, but somehow, the pig burrowed itself into the mud near the house. He was injured, but alive. Charles has since become a symbol of survival with his own children's book.

Day 6: Saturday, December 3, 2016

On Saturday, we got the grim news no one wanted to hear. Constance Reed and her daughters, Chloe and Lily, were confirmed dead.

Also confirmed among the 13 fatalities were Bradley Phillips, who was found dead near his home, and Reverend Ed Taylor.

The 85-year-old had pioneered the wedding industry in Gatlinburg in 1978 and presided over 70,000 weddings. Strangely, his family told 10News that Taylor's beloved dog somehow escaped the fire and was taken to a shelter. They don't know how the two became separated but believe Taylor was likely overcome by the smoke as the two tried to flee.

For the first time on Saturday, we were able to confirm the first of many revelations about the critical communications failures of that night.

Officials in Sevier County wanted TEMA to send an Emergency Alert System evacuation message to cell phones in the area around 8:30 p.m. However, the weather and fires interrupted phone, internet, and electrical services and the message didn't get delivered. Once communication was reestablished, only one text alert went out, asking people to stay off their cell phones except for emergencies.

Day 6: Sunday, December 4, 2017

As search and recovery efforts continued throughout the week, fires were still burning in the area. The Chimney Tops 2 fire that started it all had grown to 17,000 acres and was just 38 percent contained. Crews were also still battling a blaze on Cobbly Nob.

A 14th person was also confirmed dead from the fires. Elaine Brown, 81, died in a car accident on Wears Valley Road while she tried to escape.

We also learned the name of another victim. Robert A. Hejny, 63, was found dead in his room at the Traveler's Lodge Motel. He had moved to Gatlinburg from Biloxi, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina.

Dolly Parton announced plans for a star-studded benefit concert to raise money for wildfire survivors. The event, set for Dec. 13, would go on to raise more than $9 million dollars.

Day 7: Monday, December 5, 2017

One week since the fire, all but one of the victims had been identified. It would be late January before family members would learn that 59-year-old Pamela Johnson was the final victim. She was also found at the Traveler's Lodge Motel.

Meanwhile, residents were still allowed to visit their properties during the day but had to be out before dark. It was announced Monday that Gatlinburg residents and business owners would be allowed to stay in the city starting Wednesday morning and that the city would finally reopen to the public on Friday.

Two days later, we learned two teenaged boys were charged with aggravated arson for setting the fire in the national park. Because of their ages, we never learned their names, and in June, state charges were dropped because investigators could not prove that the fire in the park led to the eventual disaster and deaths in Gatlinburg.

Wildfire damage final numbers: 

Residential Structures destroyed: 1,123 in the county, 981 in Gatlinburg, 17 in Pigeon Forge.

Commercial Structures destroyed: 5 in the county, 53 in Gatlinburg, none in Pigeon Forge.

Residential Structures with major damage: 7 in the county, 7 in Gatlinburg, none in Pigeon Forge.

Commercial Structures with major damage: none in the county, 3 in Gatlinburg, none in Pigeon Forge.

Residential Structures with minor damage: 42 in the county, 29 in Gatlinburg, none in Pigeon Forge.

Commercial Structures with minor damage: 1 in the county, 1 in Gatlinburg, none in Pigeon Forge.

Residential Structures affected: 126 in the county, 54 in Gatlinburg, 1 in Pigeon Forge

Commercial Structures affected: 1 in the county, 9 in Gatlinburg, none in Pigeon Forge.

More Coverage

Smokies Strong: Special Section

What we knew then: The 1st week of wildfire coverage

Smokies Stronger: Sevier County one year later

True Volunteers: Stories of heroism and generosity from the wildfires

When disaster struck Sevier Co., Dolly and the My People Fund stepped in to help

Before You Leave, Check This Out