Gatlinburg fire victims: Houses destroyed, relatives missing

Fanned by strong winds and the Southeast's worst drought in nearly a decade, at least 14 fires burned in and around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, forcing evacuations from the popular tourist gateway and nearby communities. On Monday afternoon, a wildfire from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread rapidly into communities around it. By early Tuesday, emergency officials said about 100 homes were affected by the blaze.

Fanned by strong winds and the Southeast's worst drought in nearly a decade, at least 14 fires burned in and around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, forcing evacuations from the popular tourist gateway and nearby communities. On Monday afternoon, a wildfire from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread rapidly into communities around it. By early Tuesday, emergency officials said about 100 homes were affected by the blaze.

Michael Reed still doesn’t know where his wife and daughters are — or whether they escaped alive.

The wildfires sweeping eastern Tennessee engulfed his Gatlinburg home while he and his son were away. It’s not certain whether Reed’s wife, Constance, and daughters Chloe and Lily fled the house in time.

“We’re just hoping for a miracle,” Reed told CNN affiliate WATE-TV in Knoxville on Tuesday.

The inferno spread quickly, and with little warning. When Reed heard about the wildfire, he and his son tried to drive back to town.

“We got stuck in traffic at that point, and they wouldn’t let us turn around,” he said.

Reed wasn’t able to get his wife and daughters. He’s haunted by the last conversation he had with his wife on Monday.

“She called me about 8:15 (Monday) and said that there were flames across the street from our house, and she didn’t know what to do,” Reed said, his voice quivering.

“So I told her to call 911. And that was the last time I talked to her.”

Eventually, Reed “snuck back into Gatlinburg.” But by then, his house was engulfed in flames.

“All of Wiley Oakley (Drive) was gone. I mean it was completely on fire,” he told WATE. “I actually drove our van up the road in the fire to get to our house, and when I got there it was completely engulfed.”

Reed has frantically asked shelters whether his wife and daughters are there — but so far, to no avail.

Watering down the house

Gary Owenby was born and raised in Gatlinburg. His final memories of his home included dousing it with water to try to save it from the raging inferno.

“You could see the fire coming down the ridge,” Owenby told HLN on Tuesday. “And as it grew closer, we were watering the house down, packing, stowing stuff in the car, trying to get the animals.”

He has no idea if it worked; Owenby fled to an emergency shelter. On Tuesday, standing outside in the rain, he seemed more grateful than distraught.

“We’re thankful to be alive,” he said. “No one here could imagine this — in this beautiful area. And we’re so thankful for the rain. We have no way of knowing if we have a home to go back to. That’s not important. The lives are important.”

He’s also come to terms with the possibility all his belongings are gone. And he’s OK with that.

“We’re going to dwell on the positives. We’re going to look to a brighter future. We can’t look back,” Owenby said.

“The things I’ve known probably don’t exist anymore. And I can just close my eyes and have that memory in my heart. That will last.”

He said he had one request for the public: “I just ask everybody out there to pray for us. That’s the one thing I know that will work. God will take care of the rest.”

Hotel guests trapped by fire

Guests at Gatlinburg’s Park Vista Hotel tried to flee from the wildfire — only to find themselves trapped.

“The only road to get down from the hotel, trees had fallen down in the road and were just engulfed in flames,” guest Logan Baker told WATE. “Then the flames came up into the parking lot.”

Baker said firefighters told him it wasn’t safe to leave.

“We can’t go outside,” Baker told WATE. “The firefighters said the wind is blowing at 80 miles per hour, and the debris in the air (makes it) too hard to get us down right now.”

But before long, the hotel filled with smoke from the nearby inferno. Baker said firefighters busted open windows of the top floors to allow smoke to escape.

As he looked out from his hotel, Baker said all the trees around him were burnt. He said he could also see a spate of small fires in downtown Gatlinburg.

“It’s just engulfed,” he said. “I am also looking at the hillside past downtown Gatlinburg, and I can see cabins on fire.”