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Friday, January 27, 2017

11/28/16~The Day The Fire Came

photo source unknown


Monday, November the 28th, 2016

              The eleventh month, the twenty eighth day, in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Sixteen.

It doesn't matter how many ways I say this date, I get a knot in my stomach and my mouth becomes as parched as the landscape on that horrible day.  It was and will remain for thousands of people a day that changed their lives forever.  Some paid the ultimate price but all of us who live, work or have a deep love for these treasured mountains have been scarred. Some will bear the obvious physical scars while many, including me, will forever carry the unseen emotional scarring. 

Before I go on with the blog I need to say something. As many of you know who follow my blog Reflections From The Granny Bed, my job is the Communications Director for the Sevier County Tennessee 911 Central Dispatch. I will not be discussing the particulars of calls. It is not appropriate and we are under an directive from the District Attorney to keep the files and recordings closed until the criminal investigation is complete.  This blog is about very general information, emotions, thoughts, fears and the reality of the events of the day as seen through my eyes. I need to write this. I  have had some difficult days and sleepless nights, as have many, in the past two months.

I'm going to back up a little to the weekend of Thanksgiving.  On Thanksgiving weekend, Sevier County's population grows from around 87,000 residents to probably well over 250,000.  Our County encompasses the cities of Gatlinburg, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and the Town of Pittman Center.
I live in Pittman Center which is about 10 minutes from downtown Gatlinburg. We had been in a severe drought for several weeks and the whole area was a tinder box and we, as emergency service workers were aware that we could have a break out of brush fires. This is one of the most difficult calls to dispatch, especially when the Wildland Task Force is activated. What this means is every fire department and usually the Forestry Department are all dispatched to a scene. We have three paid fire departments and eight volunteer departments in our County.
 I remember being so happy we had made it through the Holiday without a major incident.
However, we knew the National Park had an active fire near the Chimney Tops Trail that started the day before Thanksgiving.

Chimney Tops Fire  GSMNP

This is approximately 8 miles from Gatlinburg. We answer any 911 calls placed within the National Park and transfer those callers to the NPS Dispatch Center if they need a Ranger. We send an ambulance from Gatlinburg if its medical in nature or a car accident.

On that Monday morning, my friend and partner in crime Lisa text me from her job in Gatlinburg. She worked at the Mountain Lodge Restaurant ( a casualty of the fire) on the East Parkway. The text read " what is going on in Gatlinburg?"  I was in my office and quickly looked at the CAD screen and  didn't see anything significant. She then forwarded me these photos:

This was about 11am in the morning and was taken from the Mountain Lodge.  I went to the back to check with the dispatchers and they said that they were told we did not have an active fire in the city of Gatlinburg and that the smoke and ash was from the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.

I recall looking at the sky many times that day from Sevierville, in the direction toward Gatlinburg, Pittman Center and the Smoky Mountains and honestly it scared me. Apocalyptic, was the only way I could describe it.   All I knew to do was to make sure I was kept up to date as the day went on as usual with all the other routine calls of various nature we get. I can say that if there is any silver lining in this tragedy (in my personal opinion), it is that the fire occurred on a Tuesday instead of over the weekend when every cabin and hotel would have been filled to capacity. Most tourists had left on Sunday morning, as they traditionally do on a Holiday weekend.
 I know that is little comfort to many and I in no way mean to diminish their grief.

I was home and already in PJ's which is pretty typical for me on any work day by 6pm.  I had heard a few sirens a little later and thought " oh no, I hope its not a brush fire". I had also noticed the winds had picked up and suddenly a gust shook my house. I knew it had to be a heavy wind to do so.  About that time my phone rang and what I can only explain as a 24 hour period of hell on earth began. 

" You need to get out of your house and we are covered up and can't answer all the incoming calls"

I briefly was able to ask "where's the fire and what do you need?"
I certainly wasn't prepared for the answer of "fires all over and more reports coming in, particularly in the Gatinburg area and Cobbly Nob."
Cobbly Nob is about five minutes from my house.

I quickly gathered a few vital things. I loaded my two little Toy Fox Terriers, Merry and Pippin,  and Pyewacket the kitten into crates.

I had to make the decision to leave Ms. Kitty. She is a feral cat and has never been in a car. I bade her farewell and turned her out. I went to the chicken house and opened their door if they needed to try to get away. My Daughter and son-in-law where in Illinois visiting his family. I just recently got a little VW Beetle and when I got partially down the driveway I saw that my heirloom Old Fashioned Milum Apple tree had fell victim to the wind and was blocking the driveway and I couldn't get out.

I loved that apple tree. In one of my blogs "Too Many Apples , Not Enough Spoonies" I tell the story behind the tree and its journey from the old home place in the National Park.
I realized I was stuck.  I knew I couldn't move the tree. My only choice was to drive through the neighbors hedge row and exit out of his driveway. He is elderly and lives in Nashville most of the year.  He keeps a small opening in his Forsythia hedge for the riding lawn mower. Thank goodness for the Beetle... I slipped through the hedge with just a few scratches to the sides.
 As I pulled to the highway I could see the orange glows from the Smokies and from the direction of Gatlinburg.

One of my daughters friends Heather, called and said the road to their house was closed and they couldn't get in to their dog and cat that were both inside. I felt so bad for her but told her stay away, they were already in Sevierville. They lost their home and animals to the fire. I am so thankful they were not on Wiley Oakley where their house was. It was hit really hard.
I knew I was not driving that direction so I headed out the backroads to Sevierville. The traffic which was usually very light was heavy and the wind was blowing me all over the place. I got behind a big truck and we had to stop a couple times to move trees. It took me over a half an hour to get to the dispatch center.
When I walked in I was just stunned. Every department was talking, multi phone lines were ringing and every dispatcher was engaged.  Six dispatchers were on the console radio's, two were on portables and I took a third portable. It was about 7:30 pm. I normally had four people on this time of the evening. Two had stayed over from their shifts and two had come in from off days. Later another came in as well to help. She was on vacation. David Rauhuff, the Emergency District Director came as well and helped.  As I said above, I'm not getting into the calls. Suffice it to say our records show we received 1409 calls in a 24 hour period. Our average call volume on that particular day of the week and in November would be some where between 100-125 in 24 hours. This is where I am having some issues personally with coping. I know some calls did not get answered and I just can't wrap my mind around that. We have an average 3 second answer time on over 98% of all calls.  There was no time in an approximate 14 hour period that the phones were not constantly ringing. We have six incoming lines. We kept all our equipment up and running but Gatlinburg Police was not so lucky. We lost contact with them at about 8:30pm when they had to evacuate the police department building. The phone lines were damaged as well as some cell towers.

All I can say it was like being in a nightmare in slow motion. I remember one time they told me I had a call and it was the State 911 Director from Nashville wanting to know how we were and if we needed help or anything. I remember numbly saying " we are doing all we can, as fast as we can."  And it just kept on and on... I have heard it called "The Perfect Storm".  I guess it was, but it was also a vision of chaos and the hand of nature giving you a bitch slap so hard your head spun in circles. A friendly reminder, if you will, of how little control we actually have.

Below are some photos of the Spur road. This is the road that connects Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

We had people getting into the river that divides the road to escape the heat and flames. Also we directed folks to swimming pools who couldn't get out of an area because of blocked roads.
No Way Joses and the Ripleys Aquarium in front of Greystone Heights burning

from Inside Park Vista Hotel

 As the night progressed all we could do was pray for the rain that was moving slowly through middle Tennessee. At about 2am, I realized no one had food all evening so David and I went to Walmart and got stuff for sandwiches, while we were out the heavenly rain began to fall.  After everyone had taken a quick break and ate a sandwich, I had to go to my office in absolute exhaustion. I have several Chronic Illnesses and honestly, I wasn't sure how long I was going to be upright and conscious. I had left the animal tribe in my office and had let Merry and Pip out of the crate. I guess the stress of the sudden trip and unknown place had scared them terribly. They are 12 year old sisters and their bladders have seen better days...whose hasn't?  One of them had peed all in my recliner chair that I use when I feel the POTS getting ready to take me out. I realized that night if you are tired and stressed out enough, that even dog pee will not stop you from getting horizontal. I slept two hours and when I got back to the dispatch area at 4:30a, they were visibly shaken from an elevator rescue but elated the couple had finally been freed after several hours. I learned later that one of the dispatchers lead a group prayer for the couple.   I can say without hesitation I am so proud of this group of unsung heroes.

After the rain and the sun rose, the full extent of the damage begin to set in. I think it took several days for most of us to really know how extensive the fires and damage were. We soon were saddened to hear about the loss of life as well. 2400 buildings lost. Let that sink in for a few.
One situation that was particularly hard on all of us was that one of our volunteer agencies, Pittman Center Volunteer Fire Department, had pretty much battled a monster all night without communications after their repeater site burned.  We had no idea in dispatch the size of their fire, where they were or if they were ok. They were in the community of Cobbly Nob, east of Gatlinburg pretty much on their own. We sent them initially on one structure fire. They ended up with 98 houses involved. For the first nine (9) hours they battled alone on that mountain in high winds that reached gusts of almost 90 mile an hour. They had a total of 19 firefighters. The Chief is Rosemary Nichols. She is the little sister of my friend Lisa and my neighbor here in Pittman Center.

Hellfire may have rained down on us that night, but many stories of courage, faith and grace are being shared.

Aerial view of Cobbly Nob

Roaring Fork Baptist Church

One thing that I wish everyone in America was aware of .... if anyone wants a lesson in how to behave post- crisis look no further than our County. To my knowledge, we had zero looting in a Town filled with retail shops and expensive items. Some areas of Gatlinburg were closed for almost two weeks, even to residents. The only thing that was a problem was an overflow and abundance of donated items, so much that we ran out of space to store the goods. And then lets talk about Dolly Parton:

 Her foundation has raised almost 10 million dollars to aide the victims of the fires, especially the ones who lost homes that were renters or lived in weekly housing. Those poor souls lost everything. Almost all the housing used by the Hispanic community was lost and several motels that housed the workers for many restaurants and hotels burned. 
  I haven't really ever talked much about this on the blog,  but my mom and Dolly's dad were brother and sister. The Granny I named this blog after is Dolly's grandma as well as mine.  She was bedridden her entire adult life with what I believe is the same medical issue I am now facing. I have always been proud of Dolly, but this act of generosity  has elevated her to a level of respect that is shared by everyone I know.  She may truly be the Dolly Lama.