Death toll rises as rains help put out Tennessee wildfires
Posted 7:52 a.m. Thursday
Updated 10:41 p.m. Thursday
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — After nearly 24 hours of drenching rain helped quench a series of devastating wildfires in eastern Tennessee, local officials turned to cleanup and recovery efforts Thursday even as they battled their own personal crises.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said three more bodies have been recovered, raising the death toll from the fires to 10. Dozens more have been treated for injuries at area hospitals.
Officials said they planned to reopen the resort city at 10 a.m. Friday, giving business owners and residents their first look at the damage in a city that has been closed since Monday night. The limited access would remain in effect 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Tuesday, and officials said they hope to reopen the downtown area to the general public by Wednesday.
Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner has spent the better part of two days standing in front of TV cameras saying "everything is going to be OK," all while he lost the home he built himself along with all seven buildings of the condominium business he owned.
"I really can't dwell on it that much. I think of others that have lost theirs, and it keeps my mind off of our problems," he said while fighting back tears. "It's really hard. It's really tough."
Werner was just one of several city officials confronting the crisis while dealing with losses of their own. Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle also lost her home in the fire, and Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said the homes of several firefighters are among the estimated 300 plus buildings in the city that have been destroyed.
"They have not asked to be off," Miller said. "That's just a testament to the dedication of these responders who serve this community. They put their own personal needs aside to take care of everybody else."
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said Wednesday afternoon that the fires were "likely to be human-caused," The Washington Post reported. But authorities said Thursday afternoon that it would be days before they could determine the cause and origin of the fires.
Waters said authorities are still working to identify the dead and did not release any details about how they were killed. State law enforcement set up a hotline for people to report missing friends and family. Officials have not said how many people they believe are missing.
Three brothers being treated at a Nashville hospital said they had not heard from their parents since they were separated while fleeing the fiery scene during their vacation.
More than 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg on Monday night.
"All we have right now are our dogs, the clothes on our back, my purse and my notebook computer," said Trish Panzirella, a 15-year Gatlinburg resident.
Panzirella said she and her husband narrowly escaped the fast-moving fire, even waiting in their car for the flames to clear the roadway.
"I saw the fire come across the ridge and come over the ridge, and it's coming down the mountain like lava," she said. "The only thing that saved us was that rain that came about 1 o'clock. It damped it down."
Panzirella and her husband were among 200 evacuees in a shelter at the Rocky Top Sports World complex on the outskirts of town. Now, she said, her biggest concern was friends she hasn't heard from since the evacuation.
"There's an elderly reverend who lives about three blocks up the mountain. They found his dog in front of his burned-out house. They can't find him. Nobody knows where he is. He's 85," she said.
The 15-year Gatlinburg resident said just about everybody in the shelter knows someone who is missing.
Country music legend Dolly Parton said she is establishing a fund to help victims of the wildfires. Parton said The Dollywood Company and The Dollywood Foundation were establishing the My People Fund, which will provide $1,000 monthly to Sevier County families who lost their homes.
The flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the theme park named after Parton, but the park was spared any significant damage and will reopen Friday. Parton said she hopes the financial assistance will help people who lost everything get back on their feet.
Volunteers have come from across the country to provide support to area residents.
"There are areas where it's just heartbreaking to see the homes and businesses that have been completely destroyed by wildfires," said Bob Wallace of the American Red Cross.