GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Crews made “significant progress” in their search for any survivors in the rubble of wildfires that torched hundreds of homes and businesses near the Great Smoky Mountains, and the death toll remains at seven, officials said Thursday.
Authorities set up a hotline for people to report missing friends and relatives, and while law enforcement is following up on dozens of leads, officials have not said exactly how many people they think are unaccounted for. Officials believe they will have searched most of the ruins by the end of the day.
“We’re never going to give up hope. I will always hang onto hope that there’s a chance of rescue,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said during a news conference. “But now, we are at hour 65 from the beginning of the fires. We have to come to a realization that the potential is great that it could be more of a recovery than a rescue.”
Nearly 24 hours of rain on Wednesday helped dampen the wildfires, but fire officials cautioned people, saying they shouldn’t have a false sense of security. Months of drought have left the ground bone dry and the wildfires can rekindle.
A wildfire, likely started by a person, began Monday in the Great Smoky Mountain and spread into the tourist city of Gatlinburg when 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 city has been shuttered ever since.
At least 700 buildings in the county have been damaged, and officials said it would be at least Monday before the main roads to the city are re-opened.
“Gatlinburg is the people, that’s what Gatlinburg is. It’s not the buildings, it’s not the stuff in the buildings,” Mayor Mike Werner said. “We’re gonna be back better than ever. Just be patient.”
Werner has spent the better part of three days standing in front of TV cameras saying “everything is going to be OK,” all while he lost the home he built himself along with all seven buildings of the condominium business he owned.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash has said the fires were “likely to be human-caused” but he has refused to elaborate, saying only that the investigation continues. About 10,000 acres, or (15 square miles) have burned inside the park and about 6,000 outside of the country’s most visited national park.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said authorities have made “significant progress in the search and clearing” of the rubble. He increased the number of injured to about 75. About 240 people stayed overnight in shelters.
One of the victims was identified as Alice Hagler. Her son Lyle Wood said his mother and brother lived in a home at Chalet Village in Gatlinburg and she frantically called his brother Monday night because the house had caught fire. The call dropped as Wood’s brother raced up the fiery mountain trying to get to his mother. He didn’t make it in time.
“My mom was a very warm, loving, personable person. She never met a stranger. She would talk to anybody,” Wood said.
The mayor said authorities are still working to identify the dead and did not release any details about how they were killed.
Three brothers being treated at a Nashville hospital said they had not heard from their parents since they were separated while fleeing the fiery scene during their vacation.
A number of funds have been established to help victims of the wildfires, including one set up by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee and another by country music legend Dolly Parton. Parton said The Dollywood Company and The Dollywood Foundation were establishing the My People Fund, which will provide $1,000 monthly to Sevier County families who lost their homes.
The flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the theme park named after Parton, but the park was spared any significant damage and will reopen Friday.
Mark Howard was flat on his back with pneumonia in the hospital when the wildfires started. He did the only thing he could when he heard his house was consumed: he dialed 911.
The 57-year-old owner of a handyman business had been in the hospital for several days, and a 911 operator told him about the extent of the wildfires.
“I had no insurance. It’s a total loss,” Howard said.
Howard got out of the hospital on Wednesday night, and he spent the night at a hotel in Pigeon Forge. He said he can probably afford only one night in a hotel and will probably go to a shelter later Thursday.
“I’m going to have to start over,” he said.
Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press writers Rebecca Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kristin M. Hall in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, contributed to this report.