GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — People in cars and trucks rolled into the wildfire-ravaged city of Gatlinburg on Friday to get a first look at what remained of their homes and businesses, and a mayor raised the death toll to 13, including a woman who died of a heart attack during the firestorm.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters also increased the number of buildings damaged, saying it now approaches 1,000.
“I can’t describe to you the feelings we have over this tragedy,” he said during a news conference with the governor and U.S. senators.
Local officials defended their response to the firestorm and the warnings to evacuate, with Waters saying it was not the time for “Monday morning quarterbacking.” He promised a full review of the response.
John Matthews of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency said a text alert telling people to evacuate went out around 9 p.m. Monday to anyone with a mobile device in the city, 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.
Asked about the overall response, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said the appropriate amount of resources was put in the area, including four helicopters dropping water Sunday. He said the wind came in earlier than forecast. His deputy said 1,000 firefighters and engines lined up end to end wouldn’t have prevented the flames.
Local officials, bowing to pressure from frustrated property owners, allowed people back into most parts of the city Friday morning. Residents passed through a checkpoint and showed proof of ownership or residency.
Among those anxiously waiting to return was Tracy Mayberry. He and his wife, 12-year-old son and five dogs have bounced between hotels since they were forced to evacuate their rental home Monday night. They were struggling to find a place to stay Thursday as many lodges began to discontinue the special rates for evacuees.
“It feels like Gatlinburg is more worried about how to rebuild than they are about their people,” he said.
The dead included a Memphis couple who was separated from their three sons during the wildfires. The three young men — Jared, Wesley and Branson Summers — learned that their parents had died as they were recovering in the hospital.
“The boys, swaddled in bandages with tubes hanging out and machines attached, were allowed to break quarantine, and were together in the same room, briefly, when I confirmed their parents’ death,” their uncle Jim Summers wrote on a Facebook page set up for the family. Their injuries “pale in comparison with their grief.”
Other fatalities included a couple from Canada, 71-year-old Jon Tegler and 70-year-old Janet Tegler, and May Vance, who was vacationing in Gatlinburg and died of a heart attack after she was exposed to smoke. The names of the other victims have not been released.
In communities near Gatlinburg, there were signs of normalcy. In Pigeon Forge, the Comedy House rented an electronic billboard message that said it was open. A hotel flyer urged guests to check out the scenic Cades Cove loop: “Take a drive and remember what you love about the Smokies!”
Dollywood, the amusement park named after Parton, will reopen Friday afternoon after it was spared any damage.
The Associated Press was allowed into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 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.
In some areas, the wooden guardrails along the roadway were charred or even gone. The park buzzed with the sound of chain saws as crews from all over the country removed fallen trees and debris. Bark had burned right off the trees, exposing the trunks, and large stumps were still hot to the touch.
Despite recent heavy rains, fire officials warned people shouldn’t have a false sense of security because months of drought have left the ground bone-dry. Wildfires can rekindle, they said.
The trouble began Monday when a wildfire, likely caused by a person, spread from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the Gatlinburg area as hurricane-force winds toppled trees and power lines, blowing embers in all directions.
More than 14,000 residents and visitors in Gatlinburg were forced to evacuate, and the typically bustling tourist city was shuttered.
Deputy Park Superintendent Jordan Clayton said the initial fire on area called Chimney Tops, a double peaked ridge line about 4 miles away from Gatlinburg, was caused by a person or people. It started near the end of a popular hiking trail on Nov. 23.
“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.”
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are helping investigate the cause.
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