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Officials are asking for the public’s help to figure out who started a wildfire that has killed 13 people and ravaged about 1,000 buildings around Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
At a news conference Friday, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash asked people who hiked the Chimney Tops Trail on Nov. 23, or know someone who did, to contact the investigative team.
The National Park Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the cause of the fire in the park, which they believe was man-made.
GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Residents and business owners in Gatlinburg got their first look at the wildfire destruction on Friday, and many walked around the once-bustling tourist city in a daze, sobbing.
They hugged each other and promised that they would stay in touch.
“We love it up here so much,” said Gary Moore, his voice trembling. “We lost everything. But we’re alive, thank goodness. Our neighbors are alive, most of them. And we’re just so thankful for that.”
A county mayor raised the death toll to 13 and said the number of damaged buildings now approached 1,000.
After days of waiting to see their homes, some of the shock began to give way to anger, and local authorities bristled when asked why they waited so long to order the evacuation.
“The city sure could have done a better job of getting us out of here,” said Delbert Wallace, who lost his home. “When they got up that morning, when they seen that fire, we should have been on alert right then.”
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters and other officials noted the fire moved such a great distance so quickly it gave officials little time to react. Once they did, it was nearly too late.
Waters said it was not the time for “Monday morning quarterbacking” and promised a full review later.
John Matthews of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency said a text alert telling people to evacuate went out around 9 p.m. Monday. But by that time, wildfires were raging in the area.
Matthews said some people did not receive the message due to power outages and loss of cellphone reception.
Local officials, bowing to pressure from frustrated property owners, allowed people back into most parts of the city Friday.
“This is all that’s left of our house,” said Tammy Sherrod, standing with her husband in front of the rubble. “We had five minutes to get off this mountain. We got off with the clothes on our back. We got off with a few pictures.”
She found a coaster in the rubble that her 27-year-old daughter had made as a child. Half of it had bright colors and the other half was charred black. It still had her name, Brianna, written on the bottom in black marker.
The dead included a Memphis couple who was separated from their three sons during the wildfires. The sons – Jared, Wesley and Branson Summers – learned that their parents, Jon and Janet, had died as they were recovering in the hospital.
At a news conference, Jon Summers’ brother Jim talked about the three young men’s harrowing escape and their parents’ death.
He said the Summers family first received a call from their condo’s owner to evacuate. They jumped in Branson’s car and drove down the mountain until a tree blocked their path. They got out and ran and became separated from their parents.
They were found unconscious at the bottom of the mountain. Jim Summers said the sheriff estimated they ran several miles.
“Quite frankly, the way the kids got down the mountain is a movie in and of itself,” Jim Summers said. “I mean, It’s just beyond belief. They went through walls of fire.”
When authorities found the parents’ bodies, they couldn’t even identify them by photographs, Jim Summers said. They couldn’t even weigh them.
“I think probably that impacted me more than anything,” he said.
Jared Summers was released from the hospital, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center plastic surgeon Dr. Blair Summitt said he anticipates the other two young men should be able to leave in about a week. The boys played in a band together and were on their first family vacation together in four years.
Jim Summers shared some comments from his nephew Wesley.
“He wanted everybody to know that, ‘My parents, I believe, died happy,'” he said.
Other fatalities included a couple from Canada, 71-year-old Jon Tegler and 70-year-old Janet Tegler, and May Vance, who died of a heart attack after she was exposed to smoke. Officials said at a news conference that she was vacationing in Gatlinburg, but an obituary posted online said she was from the area.
The Associated Press was allowed into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited national park in the country – on Thursday. Soot, ash and blackened trees covered the forest floor, and the gorgeous vistas of tree-topped mountain ranges were scarred by large areas of blackened soil and trees. Small plumes of smoke smoldered from hot spots.
Deputy Park Superintendent Jordan Clayton said the initial fire started Nov. 23 near the end of a popular hiking trail. Authorities urged anyone who hiked the trial to give them a call.
“Whether it was purposefully set or whether it was a careless act that was not intended to cause a fire, that we don’t know,” Clayton said. “The origin of the fire is under investigation.”