NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Family members of the brothers burned and parents killed in the Gatlinburg wildfire held a media briefing Friday and shared their devastating story of loss but also of survival.
Jim Summers, brother of Jon Summers, spoke from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville where two of his nephews remain hospitalized.
His brother Jon and sister-in-law Janet were tragically confirmed dead Thursday evening after being separated from their three sons—Jared, Wesley, and Branson—when the fires broke out Monday.
Summers opened by thanking everyone for the outpouring of support the family has received, tearing up as he mentioned the emails and notes from people across the country, both people they know and complete strangers.
He also praised Vanderbilt, saying the staff was “the most professional, kind and compassionate group of people” he has ever come into contact with in his 66 years.
“I will carry this with me forever,” he said.
He also spoke on his family, saying Jon and Janet “were a happy couple” who “had gone through hell in their lives over the years.”
“But Jon is the most positive human being that I ever had the pleasure of knowing or being related to. In the darkest of days, Jon always seemed to find the cloud, and he passed that on to his children,” he told the media.
“His children are positive. His children are unbelievable,” he continued. “He and Janet were the most incredible parents in terms of teaching their children a work ethic. If you need something, go work for it, go earn it.”
As for the brothers, all three were brought to Vanderbilt with burns sometime after the fires hit the city of Gatlinburg.
Dr. Blair Summit, Medical Director of Vanderbilt’s burn unit, told media each suffered burns to their face and hand, while Wesley also suffered burns to his arms.
Both Wesley and Branson remain in the hospital in stable condition and are expected to have surgery this Monday to remove the burns and possibly undergo skin grafts.
Dr. Summit said he anticipates the two will be released from the hospital late next week or the following Monday.
Jared has already been released and only had burns to 2 percent of body.
“Apparently the fire, it came up so fast, it blew the fire from chimney mountain, which is some distance away, and they were in a valley, they were on ski mountain, so they couldn’t really see what was over there, but they were getting all the ash,” Summers explained.
“People in Chattanooga and north Georgia and all over East Tennessee had smog and smoke and ash, and it had nothing to do with anything other than the fact that wind was blowing and all this stuff was going on in the fires,” he continued.
“So when they call to evacuate… they began packing up to go, they got in Branson’s vehicle… they made it as far down the road a ways, and then a tree had fallen across the road and couldn’t go any further, so they got out of the car and somehow they got separated.
“And then after that, we don’t know,” Summers said.
“Quite frankly how the kids got down the mountain is a movie in and of itself,” he added. “They went through walls of fire. The entire road, on both sides of the road, and they had to run through it all the way to the bottom of the mountain.”
“According to the sheriff, it was several miles that they ran, and it’s my understanding they were found unconscious when they made it to the bottom of the mountain,” he concluded.
As for the news that their parents passed, their uncle said he received the call from the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday and requested the boys be put in the same hospital room so he could deliver the news. Summers then struggled to finish his words as he was overcome with grief.
Cousin and license therapist Marsha Crownover took over, saying she and Summers had a conversation with the brothers earlier in the day that this might be a possibility.
“The boys were very verbal about knowing that this was probably coming,” she said. “Even though they were sort of prepared, the confirmation was difficult for them.”
“Last night was a tough night, but this morning has been just really a completely different day. Not to make light of the situation, but these boys are just incredible,” Crownover said.
“To reiterate what Jim just has just said, they are resilient. They are the most positive, glass is half full, just amazing boys. They have lost their mother and father, and we have lost family members. They are already talking openly about the loss and what moving forward might look like for them, so we feel really optimistic about the future in spite of how horrible this has been,” she concluded.