Feature

Fire on the Mountain

A night of terror in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

photo: Bill Phelps

From left: Michael Reed, one of the survivors of the November blaze; a rainbow above the hills surrounding downtown Gatlinburg.

On the night of November 28, residents of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, found themselves in the midst of a nightmare. Within hours, a small blaze had exploded into the worst fire in the Smoky Mountains in a hundred years, forcing thousands to flee and leaving fourteen dead. Months later, the tourist town is bouncing back. But for some who survived that terrifying night, life will never be the same.

I.

The fire burned sideways in the cold, red dark. When it found the little cabin on the mountain, it broke through the front window first, then curled up the wall, and eventually ate the cedar hope chest made from a tree on Linda Morrow’s family’s farm in Sebastopol, Mississippi. The sound of breaking glass startled her awake: her husband’s suncatcher, scraps of stained glass strung on fishing line, knocked off a window by the fire and onto the floor. She had gone to bed early that night last November, and the fire took the nightstand that held her glasses, and the Irish lace blanket keeping her warm, a keepsake from her mother, after she kicked it off and ran for her life. She grabbed her rubber house shoes and her glasses and ran from the bedroom to the front door, the fire crawling onto the walls, the flames erasing the curtains and then her photographs and paintings, oil on canvas. Her customers knew her for the pretty mountain scenes she painted and sold at the Artist’s Attic in Gatlinburg, Tennessee—landscapes impelled by the views outside her cabin in this tourist town in the Smoky Mountains, where she had lived for nearly forty years and where she liked to paint by the creek, listening to the soothing sound the trees made in the breeze.

photo: Bill Phelps

Linda Morrow at the Artist’s Attic.

As she scrambled past them, those trees were on fire, crackling and groaning, the noises of being eaten alive. The fire reached them on the ground in leaf litter and on the wind as embers, the pines and spruces and hemlocks, taking them—the forest of her inspiration dying in luminosity.

She wore a cotton nightgown that flayed from her in wind gusts that topped 80 m.p.h. She put her hands above her head, holding her long red hair back, praying it wouldn’t catch fire, too. Everything else was on fire. The grass and the ground. Embers swirled through the air. More flames bent toward her as reflections on the creek. Behind her, she could see that the roof of the cabin and all the stacked wood on the bridge for the winter were burning. She tried to slam the manual shift of her parked Hyundai into neutral, hoping to maybe ride the car’s momentum down the mountain. But she couldn’t move it without the key.

She ran down the mountain toward Gatlinburg, almost tripping over downed power lines. The fire burned her left foot when she lost one house shoe. It scorched both her arms as she held her hair. She said another prayer—Jesus help me!—and nearly a mile farther, in one shoe, her nightgown sooty, she saw six sets of taillights, a welcome apparition in the smoke. She opened the door of a van, and a couple let her in—the van trapped in a line of cars unable to progress behind a fallen tree. Someone had a chainsaw, but it wasn’t big enough.

Through the flames, from the city, a group of state troopers appeared. It was just after 10:00 p.m. in East Tennessee. Everyone, they said, had to get out, now, leave the cars, escape on foot, the worst fire in a hundred years in the Smokies. As this procession huddled together, their hands and shirts over their mouths, one of the troopers, a big man, saw Morrow’s foot, saw her arms, heard that she’d run for nearly a mile. “How much do you weigh?” he jokingly asked her. He cradled her in his arms and began carrying her down the mountain. He had to put her down and pick her back up several times as they tried to escape, so he could catch his breath in the smoke. When the orange of the fire was like some terrible painting in the distance, he said, laughing, “Lady, you lied.” Somehow this snapped her out of shock, and she began to laugh with him.

II.

In the mountains that night there were too many prayers to pick from, and not all of them were answered. Just past 8:00 p.m. on November 28, Constance Reed called her husband, Michael. Her voice was fast and she was breathing hard. She could see the fire approaching the house. “What do I do?” she asked, terrified. He didn’t know how to respond. “Call 911,” he said.

The Reeds lived in Chalet Village on Wiley Oakley Drive, a squiggle of a road weaving down steep mountain ridges. Chalet Village was one of the largest and most popular neighborhoods of Gatlinburg, insulated in the beauty of the forest, five thousand acres filled with hundreds of huge rental cabins and permanent homes—more than five hundred of them, after that night, gone. The couple lived with their teenage son, Nicholas, and their young daughters, Chloe and Lily, who went to Pi Beta Phi Elementary School. Michael worked as a maintenance supervisor at Dollywood, the theme park co-owned by the legendary country singer born in Sevier County whose haunting early songs were often about these mountains. Earlier that night, he and Nicholas had left Constance and the girls to drive down Wiley Oakley to the Gatlinburg Welcome Center on Highway 441, known locally as the Spur, which cuts through the mountains and connects Gatlinburg to the nearby town of Pigeon Forge. They wanted to find out more about what was happening and to see if they should evacuate. The sky was orange, and the air smoky—had been for days. They got stuck in traffic—bumper to bumper on the Spur, thousands of people leaving town in the opposite direction of their house. That’s when she called him.

“Nicholas, we have to go back up there,” Michael said. With his left hand on the steering wheel and his right pressing his teenage son back in the passenger seat, he drove his gold Honda Odyssey back toward the smoke and into the neighborhood, finding not one house burning, but all of them. “I’ll never get it out of my head,” he would say later. “The noise.”

The fire was so loud he couldn’t hear Nicholas talking to him. They somehow made it up the road but couldn’t get to the driveway, because everything around them was in flames. He got out of the van and screamed his wife’s name. “I didn’t know what to do.”

The fire lurched against the van’s windows on the way down. The embers popped on the windshield as he drove over fallen limbs, and the sound he couldn’t forget was the air itself howling in a type of surrender. He kept driving, hoping, remembering how he’d ended the phone call: I love you. Father and son made it to the LeConte temporary shelter, where he showed everyone pictures of Constance and the girls on his phone. He sat outside for two days, waiting for them.

photo: Bill Phelps

A blackened stove in the hard-hit neighborhood of Chalet Village.

III.

To be terrified of the fire was also to be in awe of it—of its orange at dusk turning to red, of the height of the flames, higher than the roofs of the houses; of the exploding windows and bowing steel, the blackened concrete; of how it actually looked to watch a house burn, in minutes, and know that it belonged to somebody, and to consider everything besides the memories inside that might be extinguished; of a heat so powerful that it reddened the skin, choked the throat, liquefied tires of cars that were abandoned in its path; of the power lines it coiled on the roads, the transformers that blew and spread the fire even farther, the cinders like fireflies in the rain that came later that night; of the fire trucks wailing into the mountains from as far away as Chattanooga and Knoxville and the local firefighters making a final stand to save the town; of the things the fire took and what it left behind, that it destroyed the mayor’s big home on the ridge just as well as it took the Cupid’s Chapel of Love wedding parlor and the Alamo Steakhouse but left the giant wooden bear licking an ice cream cone at Maddog’s Creamery & Donuts; of how it spread in less than twenty-four hours, destroying some two thousand buildings, burning eleven thousand acres in the national park, forcing fourteen thousand people to evacuate, and killing fourteen.

The fire began on November 23. Police would later arrest two teenagers, fifteen and seventeen, who investigators believe were playing with matches while hiking one of the most popular trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to the twin peaks called the Chimney Tops. The air was hazy and orange with smoke for several days as the fire burned around fifty acres near the top of those peaks. On the day of the twenty-eighth, something happened. An event, in the parlance of the National Park Service.

Though investigators still haven’t been able to construct an exact map of the fire’s unusually rapid spread, it may have burned a large evergreen, which started a firebrand—the term for a flaming chunk of wood, or leaves—that the fierce winds that day blew a half mile from the ridge of the shorter Chimney Top, north over Highway 441, and onto the western slope of Mount LeConte, a behavior called long-range spotting. The area had suffered a terrible drought for months, and once the fire made it over the highway, it became pretty much uncontainable, continuing to spread sporadically in the wind and dry vegetation north toward the city.

No one knew what was coming. Many of the employees in the town’s service industry lived in weekly rental motels and didn’t own cars. They walked to work that day meandering through the strip like ghosts, covering their mouths. When the fire arrived in Gatlinburg that evening, a man named John Jillson, who worked odd jobs and lived in a room at one of those motels, stepped outside of the Travelers Motel, where he was visiting a friend. He saw “fireballs,” he says, racing over his head and onto the motel’s roof. He was blown over in the wind, fell down into the raining ash, and couldn’t pick himself back up. “When I was inside, I realized the noises I was hearing were the trees,” he recalls. “They were on fire, and popping. When I came outside, the whole roof of the building was on fire. I have no idea what time it was. Luckily, thank God, there was a break in the wind. I was able to get to my feet.” In March, Jillson, with a bag of his clothes, was living in the back of a dump truck. The fire took his motel room and two of his friends.

IV.

It took the quilts Faye McKinney sewed for her twin sister and the quilts her twin sister sewed for her. Faye had planned on keeping those forever, or until they buried her in that Smoky Mountain town. It took the sewing machines. And the thread. And the canned white beans and canned chicken and the scrapbooks she put together to commemorate every year of McKinney’s Market. It took the store itself, which she ran with her husband, Dale, for thirty-three years, and the Christmas decorations she made for the windows, and the two-dollar Powerball tickets, and the hot dogs and the chili and the apple pies she rolled out and fried in an electric skillet. One year, she and her employees, her girls, entered the pies into the local Beans and Cornbread Festival, where they won second place. “If I would’ve put moonshine in them, they would’ve won first,” she says.

photo: Bill Phelps

Faye McKinney in front of what’s left of McKinney’s Market.

The fire left the sign, McKinney’s, still yellow but now askew atop their gas pumps, which the fire also miraculously spared. It took the beer cooler but left the beer, Coors Light and Natural Light, cans painted black by the heat. In the rubble of her house it left a porcelain candy cane from a mug and a porcelain boy with a shattered left leg on a burned-out stump. Faye displays the candy cane in the kitchen window of her new house because the mug meant a lot to her. Her sister had bought it for her, before she died of cancer, and told her, “When you drink out of this, remember the good times.”

It gutted Dale’s Cadillac, and it burned up the wooden posts that used to hold the backyard swing. It left the cat, named Kitty. Faye found her two days later, mewling on the side of the mountain. It left some of her jewelry, which her brother sifted out of the ashes—the metal was singed but the diamonds still shone on her fingers. It left her beloved sister, her twin—who had been sitting on a mantel in an urn. When they sifted her out, they knew it was her, human ashes differing in texture from the ashes of a house. And it left her sister’s log cabin nearby. The fire had come all the way up to it, and then stopped, as if the fire figured that was already enough.

The fire took everything else from Faye McKinney but her life: Her house. Her business, colloquially known to just about everyone in town as Faye and Dale’s. Dale had leukemia, and eighteen days after the fire, she lost him too. She was in the hospital with him in Sevierville the night of the fire, and when she went to see the house and called him to let him know, she told the local paper that he just gave up. She has since moved into the cabin. “I don’t like going out,” she says. “Sometimes I go to Food City. Just, right now, it’s… you have to relive it every time you come out. Even if you don’t come to the burned places, you meet people. It’s like going to another funeral. It’s like going to one over and over. I appreciate people concerned about us. It’s getting better. But I don’t know about the future. I’m going on. It’s all I know to do.”

As she drives up the mountain to visit the remnants of her house, she starts naming everything that the fire took that she wished she had back. “The quilts, the quilts,” she says. “The beans, chicken, pictures, oh my gosh, you name it.” Then she starts laughing, throwing her hands up. “That’s all you can do now, I guess, is laugh.”

photo: Bill Phelps

Rings found in the rubble of Faye McKinney’s home.

V.

McKinney’s lost one of its own in the fire, an employee named Pam Johnson, the last of the fourteen victims identified. Johnson loved to give hugs and would do so until an unwilling recipient awkwardly stopped her, but almost no one ever did. The store was the type of place where someone with her personality could thrive, where the workers knew the names of customers. Johnson chose the night shift—McKinney’s was the only store in town open 24-7. She was known as a bit of a hippie and had long brown hair and collected rocks, and if someone wanted a hot dog and was missing fifty cents—say, one of the workers walking to the store after a long night at the Smoky Mountain Brewery—she would let him have the hot dog. Johnson was in the Travelers the night of the fire, where she lived, refusing to leave her room even though the roof was aflame. Everything she owned was there.

There were happier stories from the fire, too, of heroism and strange luck. A man named Rodney Clark risked his life to clear fallen trees with his chainsaw and dragged ones he couldn’t cut off the road with his truck so other motorists could pass, allowing several families to get out. His chainsaw and the tires of his truck partially melted in the effort. Bill May, the executive director of the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in downtown Gatlinburg, helped save historic buildings of the campus by first spraying the shingles with a hose and then driving to alert firefighters. When he saw that the buildings still stood the next morning, he cried. A cat named Tiger saved his owner by running back and forth at the window, alerting him to approaching flames. A giant pet pig named Charles buried himself in the mud beside a house that was destroyed. He suffered burns but survived. Guests at the Park Vista hotel, overlooking the city, filmed cell phone videos of the flames surrounding the hotel, a wall of heat, but somehow the fire never reached them. A few days after the fire, in Chalet Village, something strange and wonderful happened. Big wooden stars began popping up on the trunks of burned-out trees, stars with messages: “Hope” and “Fearless” and “Love.” They were a mystery until it came to light that members of a disaster relief program called Stars of Hope had, one by one, put them there.

Gatlinburg reopened two and a half weeks later. Dolly Parton hosted a telethon called Smoky Mountains Rise, raised nine million dollars, and began paying anyone who lost a home a thousand dollars a month. Volunteers came from Samaritan’s Purse to help clean up rubble. The Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministries helped people get new cars. On the day of the fire, the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg—one of the country’s most popular aquariums—had stayed open as a shelter for people walking around town to come in out of the smoke before it was evacuated later that night.

Ryan DeSear, the aquarium’s manager, was one of the first people allowed back in town the morning after the fire, pulling into the aquarium to check on the penguins and the sharks while the hill behind the building still smoldered in the dark. The large parking garage behind the aquarium helped save it, blocking it from the flames. DeSear ended up using the aquarium’s kitchen to feed firefighters for more than a week, and the company paid salaries for the time its employees could not work and found housing for the thirty-one of them who were permanently displaced. “We’ve been through a lot, this city,” he says. “We’ve learned a lot. The outpouring of support, and grief, and love, it was amazing.” He submerges a forearm into a large plastic tub filled with Christmas cards sent to the town, many by schoolchildren in neighboring counties and from across the country: “Dear first responder… I want to thank you… I know it’s been hard not getting to see your family. Merry Christmas to our beloved Smokies.”

“The town is open,” DeSear says. “I don’t think everyone knows that. The city is here. We’re going to be okay. Gatlinburg 2.0.”

As of March, local churches were still holding support groups for fire victims. Some were meeting at town halls, people who had lost their homes and more and who didn’t believe there was enough warning or a proper evacuation system in place. A number of residents were discussing filing a lawsuit against the National Park Service.

photo: Bill Phelps

Remnants of a house in the Greystone Heights neighborhood.

Though she lost some of her originals and many computer files of her artwork, Linda Morrow is painting again. She’s wearing a purple long-sleeved shirt that hides her scars, glasses, and a little beret as she speaks with prospective buyers at her studio. “Thank you for sharing your talents with us!” one customer says, looking at a painting of a mama bear and her cubs. “Honey, you ain’t never heard of Sebastopol,” Morrow tells another who asks where she’s from. A group of artists on Glades Road in the arts and crafts community chipped in to buy her new clothes, and she has been receiving a thousand dollars a month from Dolly. “I’m trying to squeak through,” she says. “Hoping people will come back.”

 

VI.

Constance Reed and the girls never came back. Sometimes Michael Reed dreams that they did, he says outside a Starbucks in Pigeon Forge months later, over a small cup of black coffee, waiting on the end of the rain. “I don’t even know if I’ve publicly thanked everyone here who helped me,” he says. “I want to.”

Reed looks back at the highway, the Spur, over his left shoulder, first toward the grinding noise of the empty dump trucks bouncing toward Gatlinburg, and then at the bigger trucks headed back in the opposite direction, from the mountains, stacked with rows of burned-out cars. He’s smoking a lot now—too much, he says—three packs a day. He’s lost thirty-five pounds. “I don’t go anywhere,” he says. “I spend a lot of time just sitting there. Just sitting there in the quiet.” He hasn’t been back to Gatlinburg except once, with his father, to take a quick look at the house, to rummage through it, only for a few minutes—he had to leave. Constance loved Gatlinburg. The girls did, too. They never tired of its kitsch and endless glow. Their favorite parts were the Village on the parkway—the cluster of shops, the brick pathways, the Donut Friar—and walking down the strip every Halloween, all of them dressing up and filling pillowcases with candy. As soon as the girls went to bed, Michael and Constance would dip into it. “This is home, even though I can’t even look that way,” he says, motioning toward the mountains. “This is still home. We’re going to plant a tree at their elementary school for them.”

As he’s talking, a man in a gray T-shirt hesitates, then comes up to him, to put a hand on Reed’s shoulder. “Hey, man, I hate to bother you,” the stranger says. “But we’ve been praying for you and your family. I know…you…well…my heart goes out to you, man.”

“Thank you so much,” Reed says.

Michael Reed has become known for his forgiveness now, for his kindness, and for his loss—as the man on TV holding a picture of his wife and daughters right after the fire, asking if anyone had seen them. Waiting on them outside the shelter. After they had been found, holding one another, and identified, he wrote a letter on Facebook that went viral, asking everyone, even if they lost their homes, to forgive the minors who allegedly set the blaze and are awaiting trial. “I sat there and looked at my son; he’s fifteen,” Reed says. “That could’ve been him. Kids are stupid. I was stupid at that age.” A GoFundMe for him and Nicholas raised thirty-four thousand dollars in three months. Nicholas wants to be a drummer, or in the Blue Man Group. Looking at Nicholas in the evenings before he went to bed or in the passenger seat of the car or picking him up at school, those were the times that snapped Reed out of what he described, on Facebook, as, simply, the darkness.

After Constance died, he came up with an idea to honor her memory, Constance’s Bill. She had been abused as a girl, and the bill would create a nationwide text number that children in danger could use to summon the police. He spoke with Tennessee congressman Phil Roe, and set up a website, Constance’s Story, with a petition.

He was back working at Dollywood, taking apart the Mystery Mine roller coaster to inspect it before the new season. But it’s hard to be at Dollywood because the girls loved it there, too. The family did. Lily’s first big roller coaster was the Thunderhead. He remembers her yelling at him the whole way up, and halfway down she raised her hands and squealed. “She was fearless after that,” he says. Chloe had no fear whatsoever until she rode the Wild Eagle. When she went down, her cheeks flapped in the wind. Dolly Parton sent roses to the memorial service. No, he can’t leave, Reed says, his gray sweater pushed up at the elbows, revealing a tattoo of the names Constance and Chloe and Lily over the image of a heartbeat on his left forearm. He can’t leave them there in the mountains.

photo: Bill Phelps

A tattoo on Michael Reed’s arm bears the names of his wife and daughters.

VII.

On a cold night three and a half months after the blaze, from a balcony above the strip, the city looked like a fire itself in the middle of nowhere—flashing, blinking, sparkling—the air filled with something like the gold dust from Dolly Parton’s song “Smoky Mountain Memories.” It smelled of funnel cakes just out of the fryer, as though it were summertime at the fair. There was no smoke in Gatlinburg now, and the tops of the Smokies shouldered together as dark as shadows around the glowing valley of the town. The white light of the bulbs patterned around the doorways of the shops all along the parkway illuminated everything, every door open, an extended invitation. A husband and wife were selling little carved-wood bears out of their van, forty-five dollars each. People walked together two by two and three by three on the concrete sidewalk, past Ripley’s Aquarium, a shark and a bear made out of Christmas lights shaking hands out front.

Watching the flow of tourists going in and coming out—at Fanny Farkle’s arcade and the Chocolate Monkey and World of Illusions—was like looking at a Ferris wheel. Live bluegrass, the music of the mountains, spilled out, floated.
It was not easy to see, on such a night, that there had even been a fire. Gatlinburg was filling up on a weekend at the beginning of spring-break season, money coming in for ice cream and T-shirts and pencil caricatures and Tennessee moonshine, welcome in a local economy that subsists on it, needs it more than ever to make up for the weeks the city was closed. One of the hotel signs read NO VACANCY and another GATLINBURG STRONG, as did the sign on the Space Needle, the 407-foot observation tower shining like a beam of green light above the city.

photo: Bill Phelps

Mountain Strong

Lights twinkle on the strip downtown.

Only in daylight, in the quiet of the morning, was it easier to tell. Easier to notice. When the owner of the store with all the postcards was sweeping the sidewalk, with the lights of the city out and the streets mostly empty, the distractions of a million sounds and smells gone, it was right there, out in the open, unmistakable to anyone who looked up. Beyond the new construction in the sunlight, even with everything turning green again, there were still these black empty spaces all along the sides of the mountains.


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