This is a very sensitive subject for me. Please read with an open heart and an open mind
Recently I was asked a question,
“How did you find out about the evacuation for the fire and what was it like getting off the mountain?”
Honestly? … I didn’t hear about it in any official way or on the news, no radio or cell phone alert. I found out from my good friend, Hunter Meier. Hunter lived on the other side of Roaring Fork so nearly within a mile of me. I was having a few friends over and got a call from hunter telling me that he had heard about some evacuations but that nothing was mandatory and that it WASN’T NEAR DOWNTOWN (this was an official report from the Gatlinburg police) and we both agreed to wait it out. I actually remember saying, “I’ll be here until I see flames!” and I really was. I frantically ran downstairs and emptied a 2ft by 4ft plastic tub full of Christmas decorations and ornaments to fill with my belongings “just in case”. I basically laughed in the face of the fire which today I still kick myself for doing.. I mean the chances of Gatlinburg burning like that? No way! I didn’t believe it for a second. Hunter and I remained in constant contact for a few hours. I’d say I got home around 4:30 that afternoon. One of my friends that was coming over actually couldn’t get on to the spur from Pigeon Forge to get to my house because it had started to burn. They were shutting down the town and I had no idea. Calls to and from Hunter were coming closer and closer together. We both decided to start packing and this was probably around 5:30-6:00. Hunter started sending me links to videos of fire, not from news reports or officials, but from our friends and family. I started to receive texts from family members, “Are you OK?”, “Are you safe?”, “Are you home?”, “Are you still in Gatlinburg?”, “Get out!” I started to take it all a little more serious. I started to get really scared actually. Around 6:30-7:00 PM Hunter called me and said he was leaving, that I should pack up and get out. He also sent me a video of the fire, it was literally in his front yard. Creeping up his front yard and he had to save his life, his pup Molly’s life, and in all honesty mine as well. After that phone call I started throwing any and all things I could think of in the box. By 7PM I could barely see two feet in front of my face, the smoke was so heavy and unbearable. I couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. I was standing at my front door when I got a call from my grandmother who lived next door and had just left with my grandfather. I’ll never forget her words, I picked up the phone and before I could even say hello she burst out with “GET OUT, OUR MOUNTAIN IS ON FIRE!”. My heart started beating deeper and faster. She was at The First Baptist church at the bottom of our road on Rattlesnake Hollow Rd and Brownsridge Rd and she could see the flames crawling up our hill knowing that I was still at the top of a very tall, heavily wooded mountain. I believe that my house was actually on fire while I was still in it. The smoke was unreal. When I hung up the phone with my grandmother I tossed my phone in my purse, somehow managing to pocket dial my best friend. The smoke was so thick my eyes were pouring tears. I couldn’t breathe I was wheezing and gasping for air and this was all that my friend Karlee and her mother were hearing to on the phone. Later Karlee and I discussed that she thought that she was listening to me take my last breath. I’ll never forget the smell and the taste of the smoke. I think I might have circled my house twice in a blind panic honest to god not knowing what to do. I was absolutely terrified; paralyzed with fear. I got in my car and continued to gasp for air, lungs filled with smoke – Karlee still listening, screaming for me, but I couldn’t hear her because my phone was in my bag. As I got down the hill and my Bluetooth system in my car connected to my phone, I began to hear her cries. At that moment I realized I had left my most important bag in my house. It had all of my sentimental items. Pearl and diamond earrings my grandfather had given my mother for her 18th birthday. A mercury dime necklace my father had given my mother in high school, my great grandmothers pink diamond necklace, and an urn and necklace containing my fathers ashes. I said aloud, “I’m going to turn around and get it” but Karlee and her mother begged me not to. As I got to the main road, traffic was only going out of town and the road seemed to be closed entirely going into downtown Gatlinburg. My car was incredibly small, I drove a Fiat Abarth with a full cabriolet roof made of fabric. I pulled across the street because the roof was so thin I thought it might rip open due to the 90 mph winds. I had a friend that had been with me at my house earlier that day and had gone home to grab some belongings too – just in case. She was only a few cars ahead of me in traffic. We were both scared for our lives and hysterical and to be honest I didn’t feel safe in my car. I parked in the safest place I could find and left my car. With nothing to my name but my car key in one hand and cell phone in the other. I was wearing a pair of house slippers, Sophie shorts, and a flannel shirt. I parked my car as far away from everything burning as I could get. Before I opened the door I heard these blood curdling screams and just the word “fire”. I have honestly never thought my life was going to end like I did in those 20 minutes after receiving the phone call from my grandmother warning me of the flames. I ditched my car and ran to my friend Jasmine’s car. I ran down the street like something out of an opening scene of an apocalypse movie; shirt pulled up over my face and tear stained cheeks. I ran down the middle of two lanes of stopped traffic until I found Jasmine’s car. There were animals fleeing the mountain, bears running across the road trying to escape the fire, same as us. We sat there in silence, crying, holding hands, and unsure of what was to come.
The rest of the night was no better. We made it to Rocky Top Sports Arena where they were herding all evacuees. But the flames were just getting brighter and closer. We couldn’t get out through Gatlinburg so we headed for Newport to get on the interstate. It took hours. It’s a simple 40 minute drive but the traffic was as thick as the smoke and we were really going nowhere quick. All we wanted to do was get out and it was a task that seemed to be damn near impossible. There was no power anywhere. No one could get gas. There was no cell reception, so no one knew anything and no one could reach anybody. It was pure chaos. As we drove past Cobly Knob we looked over to see actual fireballs in the sky. There were five or six cabins burning to the ground. The fire was everywhere. It felt like we couldn’t escape. We couldn’t get away from the flames. It was the scariest night of my entire life. When I finally reached my Aunt’s in Dandridge I was inconsolable. I hysterically cried myself to sleep which only lasted a few hours.
In all honesty, nobody could ever do anything to make what happened okay. It’s not okay that we weren’t told to leave. It’s not okay that people died. I personally don’t care why they didn’t send alerts or what anyone’s excuse is, it is UNEXCEPTABLE. Human lives were lost. We’ll never know how many animals died. I lost things that I’ll never be able to replace. I have PTSD to this day and I’m even leaving for the Holidays because I don’t think I can handle being here on November 28th. I hate using the word “anniversary” because to me that is a celebration and this is a tragedy. Gatlinburg needs a plan, because if this happens again and the same events play out then WE are responsible for not making a change.
This photo was taken long before half of my community burned to the ground. WHY DID THEY NOT TELL US TO LEAVE?
Some people say we’re naïve for staying but I was 22 years old. How was I supposed to know what to do? I had never been trained in this kind of situation? Our own people had failed us and it felt like we were left to die.
This photo has really stuck with me. I’ve had to pull over driving down the road because passing this hotel, all I could see was this image. This fire has daily and nightly haunted me.