Businesses reopen, tourists return after Gatlinburg fires


GATLINBURG (WATE) – Many prominent Gatlinburg businesses were back to serving customers Friday, 11 days after the deadly wildfires.

Tourists from all over the country came back to town to enjoy some of their favorite activities.

Calhoun’s opened right on time at 11 a.m. Reopening was a relief for the workers and servers.

“Money-wise, you have to keep your bills up and I need to be back at work,” said server Heather Kyker.

“It’s been two weeks since I got to work last. Pockets are definitely feeling it, this close to Christmas,” said server Cheyenne Gibson.

Terry Calhoun is a baker at the popular restaurant. The father of four lost his home in the fire. For a while, he was concerned about whether he would have a job.

“I was feeling hopeless there for a good week and a half to two weeks, not knowing what the future held. And being able to come back here and know that, I love the people I work with. I love this place to work. I’m still making money. I feel useful again,” he said.

Calhoun’s Village has three different restaurants. At one point last week, management wasn’t sure if their buildings would be intact. Fortunately, there was no major damage.

“Buildings were intact. We had some wind damage, but we had been, I guess, lucky the fire didn’t get on our property, unlike other people who weren’t so lucky,” said manager Bart Frick.

Ron and Bonita Peyton came from Morristown to be some of the restaurant’s first customers.

“I wanted to support the people in Gatlinburg and all that they went through. And one way to do it is to come, shop and eat and dine and spend some money,” said Ron Peyton.

“This is such a big time of year for them. It really broke my heart when I thought it was going to be gone this year. Having to come back from all of this is hard enough, but missing their main shopping season and people coming to vacation and spend money would have been devastating,” said Bonita Peyton.

It took three days to bring in all the food and get the restaurant cleaned up. Calhoun’s Village believes this will be a successful winter season.

Ripley’s Aquarium is the top attraction in Gatlinburg and people piled in on Friday. The aquarium reopened at 8 a.m. to enthusiastic visitors.

“We actually called to cancel our reservations, and they said don’t worry, everything will be back up and running within the week. So we got real excited. We had everything packed up and ready to go. We definitely didn’t want to miss this,” said Nikki Lee Chase.

“We had planned to be here this weekend. When the fire happened, we cancelled. When they talked about reopening today, we rescheduled and got up early to show up,” said Larry Schell.

Special generators kept life support systems working to protect the thousands of aquatic creatures during the time the aquarium, along with the rest of Gatlinburg, was closed. Ripley’s is also taking care of its employees.

“We’ve made sure all of our employees have been paid throughout. They’ve gotten their normal paychecks, no problems, no misses, no anything. We’ve had 31 employees lose their homes. We have 29 people permanently placed at our expense and the other two should be placed by the end of the day, fingers crossed,” said General Manager Ryan DeSear.

Several hundred employees work at Ripley’s during the busy winter season. All are glad to be back.

“It’s important to bring the community back together,” said photographer Jacque Newton. “And just for everybody to be together. It’s almost like a festive atmosphere.”

Some elementary school students from Grainger County were very excited. Their field trip to the aquarium continued as scheduled.

“It’s been a traumatic couple of weeks for all the citizens of Gatlinburg, and all the employees of Gatlinburg and all the businesses of Gatlinburg. But being normal, having visitors in the building and acting like a normal December day is amazing,” said DeSear.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was full of people on Friday, despite the cold temperatures. Everyone is happy the park is back open.

The park had wind and fire damage and crews had to remove trees and clean up rock slides. The park’s Sugarland area reopened Friday, allowing visitors back into some of their favorite spots.

“To tell you the truth, I was very interested in seeing if there was any damage done to the wildlife center, which is right here. I’ve always enjoyed it every time I’ve come to Tennessee,” said John Thompson from Kingston.

Park employees are happy to have guests back as well.

“Oh we’re so happy to have people back in the park. This has been such a devastating week for our Gatlinburg community and our hearts have really been broken over the whole tragedy. And so its just super nice to open and to be able to have visitors back to the Gatlinburg area and visitors back to the Smokies as well,” said Jamie Sanders with the park.

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