Death toll in Tennessee wildfires rises to 7, officials say

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — In the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, a Tennessee tourist mecca emerged from the smoke, charred and vacant after a swift-moving wildfire. Many buildings were burned to their foundations. Hotel fire alarms echoed through empty streets lined with burned-out cars.

The fire picked its spots as it tore through the Gatlinburg area Monday: It destroyed at least 150 buildings but left others intact. Seven people were killed and about four dozen were hurt, Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said.

National Park Service spokeswoman Dana Soehn said the original fire that sparked a dozen other fires was not started by a lightning stirke, but was "human-caused." She did not elaborate. There's now an investigation into the fire.

By Tuesday evening, almost nothing remained of the Castle, perhaps the largest and most iconic home overlooking Gatlinburg. Entire churches disappeared. So did the Cupid's Chapel of Love wedding venue, though its managers promised to move scheduled weddings to a sister venue, Chapel at the Park.

Officials surveying early damage said the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa, with more than 100 buildings, is likely entirely gone.

"I'm just astonished this is my town," Marci Claude, a spokeswoman for the city and for Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said as she saw the destruction for the first time on a media tour Tuesday.

Gatlinburg aquarium: 'Animals are safe' after devastating Tennessee wildfires

Fanned by hurricane-force winds Monday night, the flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge named after country music legend and local hero Dolly Parton. The park was spared any significant damage.

Local officials offered reassurance that the worst was over Tuesday. More rain was in the forecast overnight and through Wednesday, though high winds were expected Tuesday night.

Much remained uncertain for a region that serves as the gateway into the Great Smoky Mountains, the country's most visited national park. Search and rescue efforts continued through the night in areas that had been unreachable because of downed power lines and trees.

A somber reality set in for Gatlinburg, a city of just 3,944 residents that draws more than 11 million visitors a year. But even Werner, who lost his home in the fire, remained steadfast that his city will recover.

"It's a devastating time for us and for Gatlinburg," Werner said at a news conference Tuesday. "As I said earlier this morning, we're strong. We're resilient. And we're going to make it. We're going to pull it together and continue to make Gatlinburg the premier resort that it is."

In all, more than 14,000 residents and tourists were forced to evacuate the tourist city in the mountains, where some hotspots persisted and a curfew was in effect overnight Tuesday.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who flew in to see the damage caused by a fire he called the largest in the state in the past 100 years, said he was struck by how some buildings were burned to the ground while others - including most of the downtown entertainment cluster - were untouched.

"It just could have been so much worse," he said.

The governor said work would begin quickly to repair the damage to what he called "a special place in the state of Tennessee."

Though wildfires have been burning for several weeks across the drought-stricken South, Monday marked the first time any homes and businesses were destroyed on a large scale.

Rain forecast for Wednesday should help the area after weeks of punishing drought, but the bone-dry ground should soak up the moisture quickly, forecasters said. Rainfall amounts have been 10 to 15 inches below normal during the past three months in many parts of the South.

The Gatlinburg area wildfires spread when winds blew trees onto power lines, sparking new fires and shooting embers over long distances. Hundreds of homes and other buildings, including a 16-story hotel, were damaged or destroyed.

The fires spread quickly Monday night, when winds topping 87 mph whipped up the flames, catching residents and tourists in the area by surprise. Police banged on front doors and told people to get out immediately. Some trekked 20 minutes to catch lifesaving rides on trolleys usually reserved for tours and wedding parties.

"There was fire everywhere. It was like we were in hell," said Linda Monholland, who was working at Park View Inn in Gatlinburg when she and five other people fled on foot. "Walking through hell, that's what it was. I can't believe it. I never want to see something like that again in my life, ever."

Gatlinburg evacuees share their stories

Terri Dunn and her friend Karen Ford left Charlotte for a girls’ trip to the Gatlinburg area this weekend.

They realized Sunday morning during breakfast something was wrong.

“In about the 30 minutes, we sat eating our donuts, we could tell a big difference when we went outside. It was starting to get really smoky,” Dunn said.

They took pictures of downtown Gatlinburg in the morning, but the heavy smoke made it look like dusk.

“You could feel ash raining down on you,” Dunn said.

They realized they had to get out of Gatlinburg and headed back to their hotel in Pigeon Forge.

“The wind was really strong,” Dunn said.

They made it just in time because the road they had traveled on was eventually surrounded in fire.

A man with Charlotte ties, Donald Harwell, went to Gatlinburg to decorate his vacation house near Ober.

He later was surrounded by flames.

“There’s only one way in and one way out up here, and the way out, you had to drive through the fire area, and it just wasn't a good idea,” Harwell said.

Dunn, Ford and Harwell were able to make it through the night and returned home Tuesday morning.

A woman from Morganton, North Carolina, identified only as Joyce, said she and her husband were on vacation in Gatlinburg when the power went out at their rental home and she noticed some burning trees.

The couple realized they needed to evacuate before the flames reached their rental.

(Joyce, of Morganton, describes her escape to ABC6/WATE)

“So we tried to get to our car, but the smoke was so bad that we couldn't. We covered our faces with wet towels, and then we finally got in the car, and we drove down the mountain a little ways, and we ran into a tree that was blocking the road, so we had to turn around. We couldn't see to get back up the mountain. We finally got to the infinity pool and parked there, and then we watched the building go down in flames,” Joyce told ABC6/WATE.

Joyce tearfully told the ABC6/WATE reporter that she didn't know the name of the firefighter that saved them but that she was incredibly grateful.

“We left our car and our things, but we got out fine. I thank the Lord we did,” Joyce said.

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