Painstakingly, Gatlinburg Fire Victims Begin To Be Identified

Dec 4, 2016

Update: 12/5/16 at 7:45 a.m.

On Sunday, another death was attributed to the fire, bringing the death toll to 14. Smoky Mountain National Park officials say 81-year-old Elaine Brown was fleeing the fire when she suffered a "medical event" that led to a motor vehicle accident. 

Original Post:

Harrowing and heartbreaking stories are emerging as victims in the Gatlinburg fire being to be identified. The death toll stands at 13.

A couple from Memphis, with ties to Nashville, are among those remembered by relatives.

Architect Jon Summers and wife Janet, both 61, were killed in the area of Chalet Village on the west side of Gatlinburg. Their story captured national attention, as the couple was initially considered missing and news spread of the miraculous survival of their three adults sons.

For an emotional 30 minutes, Jim Summers, brother to Jon and uncle to the children, spoke from the Vanderbilt Medical Center burn unit. He said that even in the hardest of times, Jon and Janet instilled positivity in those around them. The family was last together at Thanksgiving.

“They have gone through hell in their lives, over the years,” Jim Summers said. “But John is the most positive human being that I ever had the pleasure of knowing or even being related to … and he passed that along to his children.”

Those children are known as the Summers brothers — and have been in a band since they were teens. Jared has been treated and released from the hospital. Brothers Branson and Wesley were described as upbeat while recovering from burns to their arms and faces, and smoke inhalation.

Yet their uncle said the men are only beginning to cope with the loss of their parents.

The family had attempted to flee the mountain together, but became separated after encountering a burning tree across the roadway, Jim Summers said.

“And I can tell you just from talking to the kids, that there’s been some second-guessing, and that is so tragic,” he said. “I can’t tell you what that’s like.”

The brothers ran through walls of fire on a trek of several miles, relatives said. They were found unconscious, by chance, and life-flighted to Nashville. They are among the most severely injured of the survivors from Gatlinburg.

A fund has been created for the family, and it is accepting donations addressed to Summers Brothers Trust, 80 Monroe Ave., Suite 650, Memphis, TN 38103.

A Vanderbilt doctor said two brothers will undergo surgery on Monday, including skin grafting.

“I anticipate discharge from the hospital ... late next weekend,” said surgeon Blair Summitt. “I think because they have such a strong family, that makes a big difference.”

Jim Summers said the three sons will be supported by a large extended family.

“They will have, probably, three helicopter mothers. They will have a control freak ex-uncle — which would be me. They will have people looking out for them always,” he said. “Always.”

Children Among Victims

A second family has also been identified as victims in the Chalet Village area.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that Constance Reed and daughters Chloe, 12, and Lily, 9, were identified Saturday.

Reed’s father-in-law, Grant Reed, and other family members shared their grief on Facebook.

“With profound sadness that is now a part of my soul I am sorry to share the passing of Constance, Chloe and Lily,” Grant Reed wrote. “Please continue to pray for my son Michael and his son.”

The newspaper reports that the “Reed Family Relief Fund” is available through www.parkwaychurchofgod.org.

Also confirmed deceased is Alice Hagler, 70. From the Knoxville News Sentinel:

Hagler’s daughter-in-law, Rachel Wood, said Hagler called her family about 7 p.m. Monday, just as high winds were whipping flames through the neighborhood where homes sit among trees with vistas to the surrounding mountains.

“She said her house was on fire, and then the line cut out,” Wood said. Five months ago, she’d moved from Alabama to the home on Piney Butt Loop, going to work for the Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge.

WBIR in Knoxville has the stories of several other victims, including a couple from Canada and a woman who died of a heart attack while fleeing.

Authorities Take Care With Families Of Victims

Officials have described exceptional difficulties in identifying victims of the firestorm. 

Gatlinburg fire chief Greg Miller has said the fire was so intense that human remains may have been burned. If only bones are left, Miller says identification will take longer.

And on Friday, Gov. Bill Haslam asked for patience.

“I know these folks, and they’re going to make certain they get it right,” Haslam said. “These are real lives. And nobody wants to make a mistake here.”

Families of the missing have had to brace for the worst.

“We sort of knew that we might get the word that they were deceased. It was very, very difficult,” said Marsha Crownover, a relative of the Summers family.

Jim Summers said that Thursday was the most difficult in a series of challenging days. He said the official confirmation of the deaths of Jon and Janet came a short time after receiving other positive news about the conditions of their sons.

He praised the transparency of the county sheriff for sharing developments, whether good or bad. For example, he had relayed the discovery of a victim found with a dog, and inquired whether the Summers family was traveling with a pet.

Officials have needed such clues during the difficult recovery process.

“We sent photographs to the sheriff’s department, and he called me back and said … the corpses cannot be identified even with photographs,” said Jim Summers. “And I knew then what we were talking about. I think, probably, that impacted me more than anything.”