Gatlinburg fires: 7 dead; families wait for news of missing
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Alice Hagler’s family hoped that she’d made it out of her Gatlinburg cabin — that maybe a neighbor had grabbed her after she’d called her son to tell him that the fire roaring into the area had started burning her home.
It wasn’t to be. They were heartbroken Wednesday evening when officials told them that they found the 70-year-old’s body — one of at least seven people killed in a wildfire that spread with little warning from the Great Smoky Mountains into and around the eastern Tennessee resort community this week.
Firefighters and other responders are extending their search into arching previously inaccessible burned areas, as several families wait for news about relatives they say have been missing since the fire blew into inhabited areas Monday.
One of Hagler’s sons, Lyle Wood, says the family is mourning her and trying to figure out the next steps for his brother, who lived with Hagler but wasn’t home when the fire came.
“The last phone call she made to my brother was the fact that she was really scared and frantic because the house was actually on fire at that point,” Wood told CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday. “Our hope was that maybe she’d be one of the ones that was found safe.”
“It’s a hard thing … She was an amazing woman who loved a lot.”
Authorities have yet to publicly identify the seven who died. The blazes scorched thousands of acres in the resort-heavy area, burning more than 700 buildings in Sevier County, including about 300 in Gatlinburg alone, and injuring at least 74 people, officials said.
Several families are still hoping their missing loved ones are OK.
“Our search and rescue teams are going out house by house,” Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said Wednesday. “Right now, search and rescue is our main challenge.”
Authorities continue to block access to the city, from which about 14,000 residents and tourists were evacuated Monday.
The fires that reached Gatlinburg began days earlier on a trail in the mountains 10 miles south of the city, National Park Service spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. But strong winds that began Sunday helped the fire spread into the Gatlinburg area on Monday.
Investigators believe the trail fire was “human caused,” Soehn said, without offering further information, but it’s still under investigation.
Wildfires have burned in parts of the Southeast for weeks, fueled by the region’s worst drought in nearly a decade.
‘She was scared’
Hagler was likely preparing for an upcoming family trip to Disney World when the flames approached Monday, her daughter-in-law, Rachel Wood, said.
Rachel Wood said she talked to her by phone late Monday afternoon, and that Hagler was nervous about strong winds shaking her house. Unbeknownst to either of them, the wind would push the fire to the home.
“She was unsettled, and she was scared,” Rachel Wood told “New Day” on Thursday. “She said she felt like her house was going to blow down because of the winds, and she said there was ash in the air.”
Hours later, the family said, she called her son James Wood to tell him that her home had caught fire.
“I told her to get out immediately,” and then the line disconnected, James Wood told CNN affiliate WATE earlier this week.
Hagler was supposed to have met Lyle and Rachel and her two grandchildren in their home in Savannah, Georgia, on Tuesday. From there, they were supposed to have gone to Disney World this week.
“She loved those kids very much,” Lyle Wood said. “She was one of those ladies that just loved people. … She never found anybody she wasn’t willing to talk to.”
“We ask for prayers for the people that are still trying to figure out how to put this thing all back together.”
‘I thought she’d be standing in the driveway’
Another Gatlinburg resident, Michael Reed, has been desperate to find out what happened to his wife and two daughters, from whom he was separated on Monday night.
Reed and his family were in their Gatlinburg-area home when word spread that fire was burning out of control nearby. He and his 15-year-old son left in the family’s only vehicle to see what side of the road the fire was on.
He told CNN that he got stuck in traffic as people fled. He received a panicked call from his wife, Constance, 34.
“She … said there were flames across the street from the house. I told her to call 911,” he said. He rushed back to the home.
“The road was on fire and every house was engulfed in flames. I thought she’d be standing in the driveway.”
Since then, he’s been in a shelter in Pigeon Forge, trying to find out what happened to Constance and their daughters, Chloe, 12, and Lily, 9. He said authorities haven’t been able to find them.
“We’re just hoping for a miracle,” Reed told CNN affiliate WATE on Tuesday.
Memphis couple missing; sons injured
Also missing are Memphis couple Jon and Janet Summers, who were in the area with their three sons for a family getaway, CNN affiliate WMC reported.
The family appears to have been separated on Monday, and the sons were found unconscious, WMC reported. They were in a hospital on Tuesday.
Several emergency shelters opened to accommodate evacuees. At one time, about 2,000 people were staying in shelters in the area; about 200 were in shelters Wednesday night, officials said.
Authorities said they didn’t know when residents would be able to return to evacuated neighborhoods. Some learned through news reports that their house was destroyed.
Among them were Tim and Shirley Morrison, who saw a picture of their house on the news. They’d been in their home, on a hillside above Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, when they saw the fire approach alarmingly fast.
“I was looking out our big windows and turned to my wife, and then turned back. It couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds, and there was a solid wall of fire,” Tim Morrison said.
They said they grabbed as many of their pets as they could, got in their cars and drove to safety. Three of their dogs and three of their cats made it with them; they don’t know where four other cats are.
Dolly Parton, the singer-actrress who owns the Dollywood theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge, said Wednesday she is creating a fund for area families affected by the fires to help get them back on their feet. Though fire burned in parts of the Pigeon Forge area, the park was not damaged.