Gatlinburg wildfire survivors frustrated after emergency calls lost
Posted July 31
Nashville, Tennessee — Fourteen people died and 14,000 others were forced from their homes during the deadly wildfires in Gatlinburg last November.
Now, we may never know how rescue efforts were carried out.
Since November, the News 4 I-Team has been requesting the calls that could have provided important information on how emergency officials evacuated those in danger. That answer came Friday via email.
Frustrated wildfire survivors gathered Friday in Gatlinburg.
"On Nov. 28, we were all in need while we suffered in a smoke-filled town for more than a week, then ran for our lives while city officials struggled to make decisions," said Gatlinburg wildfire survivor Lorraine Rutherford.
Those affected by the wildfires might never know what those decisions were.
The I-Team has learned all incoming and outgoing calls from the state's emergency operations center that first day are gone.
"Why did TEMA take nearly eight months to tell the public they failed us? Where is the transparency in our city and state governments?" Darlene Verito said.
The best explanation for what happened is the system became full and the calls were automatically deleted.
A spokesperson for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said once they realized the calls were lost they hired a forensic examiner to try and recover the lost calls. It didn't work.
In a memo obtained by News 4, the investigator said calls began failing in October, one month before the fires.
He said in his opinion there was no intentional or malicious deletions of the recordings. He believes they were lost as a result of the system being too full.
But some survivors think otherwise.
"We've been told personally everyone was evacuated. Everybody here was never evacuated, none of us. We all lived in different places in Gatlinburg and none of us were evacuated," said another survivor at the press conference Friday.
TEMA officials said it's unclear how many calls they received that day. We do know nearly 80 people were working in the state's emergency operations center that day, but we may never know if evacuation plans were properly followed.
The I-Team reached out to the forensic examiner TEMA hired to try to recover those calls. They did not want to comment.
In regards to what TEMA's doing to ensure this doesn't happen again, all a spokesperson would say is they're evaluating remedies going forward to address the recording system issue.