13 people killed in East Tennessee fire
GATLINBURG, TN (WMC) - Gatlinburg and Tennessee leaders confirmed the East Tennessee wildfires have caused 13 deaths since they started Monday.
Twelve people were directly killed in the fire, while the thirteenth victim died from a heart attack after inhaling smoke and trying to escape the flames, according to the coroner.
Eighty-five people were injured in the fire. However, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said most of those people have been released from the hospital.
Assistant Medical Examiner Vincent Tolley said six victims have been positively identified. The names of five of those victims were released:
- 71-year-old John Tegler and Janet Teglar from Canada
- 61-year-old Jon Summers and Janet Summers from Memphis
- May Vance, who died of a heart attack
State and local leaders defended themselves from questions over whether they waited too long to order mandatory evacuations.
"There is only so many ways you can notify people...mass notification," John Mathews, EMA Director for Sevier County, said. "We can go door-to-door, which we did do."
Waters said the criticism of notification decisions and method of notification comes as a result of people not understanding the area.
"What we're getting into is folks who don't know this area and got Monday morning quarterbacking," Waters said.
Investigators said the fires damaged about 1,000 buildings. Search crews covered 90 percent of the affected area, but Mayor Waters stressed that this does not mean the search is complete. They will continue to search new areas and previously checked locations.
Sevier County set up a map for property owners to check on the condition of their homes.
Waters extended his thanks to the state and nation for the support Sevier County has received.
"We're strong, but we're even stronger with the help we're getting from across the nation," Waters said.
Governor Bill Haslam and U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker attended the news conference.
"We all know and love this place," Haslam said. "We love these mountains. This is a special place."
Haslam said 16 state agencies are working in the area to help people. Most importantly, insurance companies are on hand to help people file claims. The governor said a job bank is also being built to help people return to work.
"This is extraordinary, what's happening here," Haslam said. "I haven't seen one bit of ego, one bit of turf, one bit of 'that's mine, not yours.'"
Senator Lamar Alexander said the area was close to his heart, but he was touched by the strength of the community.
"The fire is terrifying and impressive," Alexander said. "The response is even more impressive. My heart breaks for the families that have lost loved ones and homes, but I know you'll be back because Tennesseans are resilient people."
Senator Bob Corker said his wife was from the county. They were devastated to see the damage.
"It's been a tough two weeks in Tennessee, between school children and tornadoes and what's occurred here."
Corker, like Alexander and Haslam, extended praise to the county and city officials, as well as first responders working around the clock to keep the situation under control.
"My hat is off to the first responders. My hat is off to all the people here who are volunteering," Corker said. "My heart goes out to those who have had loss."
The governor and senators are scheduled to travel to McMinn and Polk Counties to tour damage caused by Tuesday's storms.
Families have been allowed back into neighborhood to see whether their homes are still standing.
As families return home to survey the damage left in the wake of the Chimney Top fire, some residents are thankful that they are safe above all. Some even returned to a home still standing.
"There is something still there, OK, thank you, Lord, for that," Carolyn Stecher said. "It came all the way up to the back, but none of the house. It smells like smoke, but it don't even smell that bad like smoke. Thank you, Lord."
But others had just minutes to escape before the flames took everything.
"Two minutes, I figure we would have burned up," Edward Brooks, 81, said. "It's--we lost 3, 4, 5 cats. And we couldn't catch them. But, we're OK."
Even through the heartache, Brooks is smiling and laughing. He added a bit of advice for others who have lost their homes.
"There's no use to really mull over the bad," he said. "Just think of the good and the good part is my wife and I are still alive. We're still here."
A curfew is in place for Gatlinburg residents, who must be indoors from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Mayor Waters said Gatlinburg officials hope to have the city completely open by Wednesday.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but National Park Service said it was 'human' caused.
Copyright 2016 WMC Action News 5. All rights reserved.