Death toll rises to 14 in Smoky Mountains wildfires - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Death toll rises to 14 in Smoky Mountains wildfires

The media tours the wildfire damage on Friday morning. (WSMV) The media tours the wildfire damage on Friday morning. (WSMV)
Hundreds of buildings were destroyed in the wildfires. (WSMV) Hundreds of buildings were destroyed in the wildfires. (WSMV)
THP troopers help rescue people from the flames in Gatlinburg. (Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol) THP troopers help rescue people from the flames in Gatlinburg. (Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol)
THP troopers help rescue people from the flames in Gatlinburg. (Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol) THP troopers help rescue people from the flames in Gatlinburg. (Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol)
THP troopers are helping to clear roads in Gatlinburg. (Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol) THP troopers are helping to clear roads in Gatlinburg. (Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol)
GATLINBURG, TN (WSMV) -

In East Tennessee, the flames continue to burn and the death count continues to rise after wildfires tore through the Smoky Mountains last Monday.

The death toll is now up to 14 people, with the latest fatality discovered over the weekend. Officials say an 81-year-old woman died in a crash while trying to escape the flames.

More than 130 people are believed to have been injured. 

There are two fires still burning in the area. More than 700 firefighters are battling what's being called the Chimney Tops 2 fire, which has scorched 1,700 acres and is 38 percent contained. A second fire in Cobbly Nob has burned 803 acres and is 41 percent contained.

Officials now estimate approximately 1,413 structures in the area were damaged or destroyed. Approximately 14,000 residents and visitors were evacuated from Sevier County last week.

Sevier County officials announced Monday that property owners, business owners, renters and lease holders will be allowed to return to full-time occupancy beginning Wednesday at 7 a.m. A curfew will remain in effect from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. on Wednesday and Thursday.

Gatlinburg will reopen to the general public on Friday at 7 a.m. Officials said most major roadways will be open, but some city roadways may remain closed for utility work.

Sevierville and Pigeon Forge are open to residents and guests.

City officials in Gatlinburg have published a GIS map that will be continually updated with information on properties in the area. Click here to access the map.

The fire began last Monday on Chimney Top Mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains, according to TEMA. Wind speeds doubled at around 6 p.m. Monday, causing the flames to spread rapidly. Gatlinburg Fire Chief Gregory Miller said wind speeds reached 87 mph at one point, which is the same level as hurricane-force winds.

Local law enforcement officers say the early evidence shows the wildfire was caused by humans, but fallen power lines also ignited flames in other areas.

Officials said they want to talk to anyone who hiked or knows someone who hiked Chimney Tops on Nov. 23. They are asked to call a tip line at 888-653-0009.

Evacuation alerts were never sent

Many people in East Tennessee who narrowly escaped the fire said they never received a text message alert warning to evacuate. On Saturday night, officials confirmed that is because it was never sent. 

Officials said at 8:30 p.m. the command post contacted TEMA requesting an emergency alert system evacuation text message. That was two and a half hours after the fire had spread into Gatlinburg city limits.

When the request was made, they said communication between the two agencies was interrupted due to disabled phone, internet and electrical services, and because of that communication failure, the emergency notification was not delivered as planned to mobile devices.

Click here to read the full statement from officials.

14 killed, dozens injured

The TBI has been called in to help identify the victims. Their remains will be taken to the medical examiner's office.

The list of the 14 people killed includes John and Marilyn Tegler, who were from Canada.

Jon and Janet Summers were vacationing with their three sons in Gatlinburg when they were killed. Wesley, Branson and Jared Summers were found unconscious. One of the brothers has since been released from the hospital. Click here to read more.

A fifth victim, May Vance, died from a heart attack caused by smoke inhalation.

Officials have also confirmed the death of 70-year-old Alice Hagler. She called her son as she saw her cabin going up in flames.

On Saturday, Chimney Tops 2 Fire announced in a Facebook post that five more victims had been identified. This includes 85-year-old Edward Taylor and 59-year-old Bradley Phillips.

Constance Reed, 34, and her daughters, 12-year-old Chloe Reed and 9-year-old Lily Reed, have also been confirmed dead.

Elaine Brown, 81, suffered from a heart attack while trying to evacuate in her car. She died after being involved in a multi-car crash.

Robert Hejny, 63, was identified on Tuesday. Officials said his body was discovered at Traveler's Motel in Gatlinburg.

Finding missing people

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has established a hotline to help find people who are missing. Anyone who wants to report a missing person in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Force and Wears Valley can call 1-800-TBI-FIND.

So far, the TBI has received 100 calls and has followed up on 70 leads.

Callers are asked to give as much identifying information as possible, including names, phone numbers, vehicle identification and last known location.

If you have called the hotline and subsequently located the person who was missing, the TBI is asking you to call them back and let them know.

The TBI is requesting residents not to call this number to ask about properties in the area.

Residents concerned about their animals are asked to go to the city's humane society website and post specific addresses that need to be checked.

Tourist attractions damaged

Several tourist attractions and resorts are included in the damaged areas, but city officials said the downtown area of Gatlinburg remains intact.

Westgate Resorts was one of the attractions that was hit the hardest. The chief operating officer of the ownership company said 74 of its 100 buildings were destroyed. Read more here.

Despite an initial report from TEMA, the owners of Ober Gatlinburg say the resort and amusement park is "OK," including the buildings on the mountain and the animals in the Wildlife Encounter.

The Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge was not damaged, but a dozen cabins managed through the organization were damaged or destroyed. The theme park reopened on Friday afternoon. Click here to read more.

Click here to see a full list of which attractions have been damaged in the fire.

Emergency response

Hundreds of firefighters and other emergency officials have responded to the area to help extinguish the wildfires and assist those who are affected. Click here to read more.

Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said first responders are feeling "numb" and are relying on their training and instincts to get through the tragedy.

"We are putting our responders in some of the toughest conditions that they've ever faced," Miller said.

Miller said the area is dealing with mudslides and rockslides because the foliage has been burned away.

About 100 members of the Tennessee National Guard were deployed to Sevier County to assist with clearing and removing debris, transporting first responders, and assisting with welfare checks.

TEMA says 52 troopers with the Tennessee Highway Patrol have gone door-to-door to help with evacuations.

At least 32 TDOT employees were dispatched to help clear the roads in the area.

Several Middle Tennessee agencies and organizations have sent crews to help fight the wildfires. Click here to read more.

    How to help fire victims

    Gatlinburg officials are asking volunteers not to self-deploy to Sevier County. Information about volunteering will be posted on VolunteerTN.org.

    People are asked to hold off on donating supplies like clothing and food for the time being until a centralized location can be organized. Anyone who would like more information about donations can call 1-866-586-4483 or 865-430-7384.

    TEMA and Tennessee Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster have also set up a call center for information about donating goods and volunteering. The call center number is 866-586-4483 and is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

    Cash donations can be made through the American Red Cross at redcross.org/donate, by calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting REDCROSS to 90999.

    The New Hope Church of God at 2450 Winfield Dunn Parkway in Sevierville is also collecting donations. The church will be staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET. Their phone number is 865-932-4673.

    Dolly Parton has pledged to give $1,000 to each of the people who lost their homes. Read more here.

    Channel 4 is also accepting donations for the wildfire victims. Click here for more information.

    Important links

    State, local officials respond

    Public officials issued these initial responses to the wildfires.

    Gov. Bill Haslam:

    The state is proving a coordinated response, including the National Guard, to help all those affected by the devastating wildfires burning in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and throughout the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. TEMA encourages residents in Sevier County to stay off mobile devices, unless it is an emergency, to prevent outage.

    U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander: 

    This is heartbreaking news for the people of Sevier County and all who love the Smokies. My staff and I are working with Gov. Haslam and local officials to make certain that there is maximum federal support to help fight the fires and deal with the consequences of the fires.

    U.S. Sen. Bob Corker:

    I am heartbroken to see the damage caused by the ongoing fires in Sevier County. While the full extent of the damage will become clear over the course of the day, we know that many have suffered tremendous loss.

    Sevier County is a special place surrounded by some of the country’s most beautiful God-given amenities and is where my wife, Elizabeth, was raised. So many wonderful families call this place home and millions from around the world visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. We are committed to doing all we can in the coming weeks to help these communities rebuild.

    Members of my senior staff have been and will remain in close contact with community, state and local officials, and we continue to extend our thoughts and prayers to all those who have been in harm’s way."

    Nashville Mayor Megan Barry:

    Nashvillians are always willing to step up and help when needed, just as many communities around Tennessee stepped up to help us during the flood in 2010. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those impacted by the forest fires, as well as the brave first responders who are working around the clock to save lives and properties in the area. We hope for a safe and speedy return of our Nashville Fire Department employees who will be assisting in Sevier County. 

    Dolly Parton, country legend and owner of Dollywood:

    I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken. I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe. It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared.

    Stay with Channel 4 and WSMV.com for updates to this story.

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