Gatlinburg Officials Try To Ease Doubts That Emergency Responders Could Have Done More | Nashville Public Radio

Gatlinburg Officials Try To Ease Doubts That Emergency Responders Could Have Done More

Dec 13, 2016

More than two weeks after a deadly wildfire burned through Gatlinburg, killing 14 people, city officials are giving a detailed account of what was done to save lives. 

The big head-scratcher for residents and visitors was why they didn't get a text alert telling them to get out of town. There were contradictory explanations immediately after the fire.

Now the story is that local emergency management director John Mathews was on the phone with the state agency ordering the alert to mobile phones around 8:30 p.m EST. But mid-call, he was cut off because of failure at two Verizon cell towers.

Gatlinburg fire chief Greg Miller says the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency tried calling back but couldn't reconnect.

"TEMA could not send the message because the verbiage had not been approved," Miller said at a press conference on Tuesday. "That's important to note because we did not want an inappropriate message to be disseminated, which could have evacuated people towards an area of concern, rather than away from it."

Instead, local broadcast alerts were sent out. Miller says emergency officials even urged media outlets to break into programming. At the same time, police, fire and even transit officials were going door-to-door. Miller says some people were hesitant to leave until they saw the flames surrounding them. Others simply refused to leave.

Miller says he will always grieve the 14 lives that were lost. But he says he's also proud that roughly 14,000 people were able to evacuate.

Final Death Toll

Emergency responders say they're fairly confident they've found everyone who was missing after the wildfires that killed 14 people in Gatlinburg and caused an estimated $500 million in damage.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation still has one open case. But Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters says there's also one fatality that has yet to be identified.

"It is not a hundred percent conclusive," he said. "But they feel that that lead and the person that has not been identified is the same person."

Waters also said today that damage caused by the fires is estimated at more than half a billion dollars in damage. Officials say nearly 2,500 structures were destroyed or damaged, about half of which were homes.

Police have arrested two teenager who may have started the wildfire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that spread quickly due to extreme wind conditions. The boys allegedly tossed matches on the ground near Chimney Tops trail. Their photo was taken by another hiker as they walked away from the trail with smoke behind them.