Tennessee wildfire death toll rises to 7
Gatlinburg, Tenn. — Three more bodies were found in the ruins of wildfires that torched hundreds of homes and businesses in the Great Smoky Mountains area, raising the death toll to seven, a Tennessee mayor said Wednesday.
Search-and-rescue missions continued, and Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said they had found three people who had been trapped since the fires started spreading wildly in high winds on Monday night. The mayor said the three were OK.
“That is some good, positive news for a change,” he said.
The mayor 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.
Gatlinburg Police Chief Randall Brackins said they have searched about 30 percent or less of the city so far.
More than 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg on Monday night, and many of them are still nervously awaiting word of when they can get back in the city to see if they still have homes.
Buddy McLean said he watched Monday from a deserted Gatlinburg street as flames surrounded his 26-acre hotel nestled in the mountains.
His grandfather bought the land in 1945, and he developed a subdivision on part of it and built The Lodge at Buckberry Creek about 14 years ago on the mountainside to take advantage of the views of Mount LeConte.
McLean said four rooms were booked and another 15 people were having a private dinner when the hotel’s chef and event coordinator told everyone to evacuate. McLean said he has not seen the property yet.
“I have 35 employees,” McLean said. “All of them lost their jobs overnight.”
Storms moved through the area as part of a system ravaging the Southeast, spawning suspected tornadoes in parts of Alabama and Tennessee, killing five people and injuring more than a dozen.
Officials in the Gatlinburg area were worried about mudslides, rock slides and high winds knocking trees onto power lines, perhaps creating new fires similar to the deadly ones that sparked Monday night.
More fires broke out in Gatlinburg overnight, but rains offered some relief. Most of those fires had been contained.
The Rocky Top Sports World complex on the outskirts of town was serving as a shelter. Wolf McLellan stumbled into the facility after a day of wandering the streets. He was forced to evacuate a motel where he was staying. He grabbed his guitar, two computers and his social security card and tried to flee with his dog, Kylie.
“She was too scared to move with the smoke and sirens and she just stood there. I didn’t want to drag her. I couldn’t drag her,” he said. “I figured the humane thing to do would be to just cut her loose.”
Officials in nearby Pigeon Forge lifted the evacuation order there, but the order still stood in Gatlinburg.
Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said officials were discussing re-opening the city on Friday so business owners can assess damage and hopefully begin paying their employees again.
“You really can’t let everybody in yet because there are still areas that haven’t been searched, there are still areas where electric lines are down, power poles are down,” he said. “Search and safety is basically our main goal. We want to get back open as soon as we can.”
Almost nothing remained of the Castle, perhaps the largest and most iconic home overlooking Gatlinburg. Entire churches disappeared, and the flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the theme park named after country music legend and local hero Dolly Parton. But the park was spared any significant damage and will reopen Friday.
Much remained uncertain for a region that serves as the gateway into the Great Smoky Mountains, the country’s most visited national park.
“It just could have been so much worse,” he said.
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