GATLINBURG, Tenn. — With flames dripping from tree branches and the air filled with embers, thousands of people raced through a hellish landscape as they fled wildfires that killed three people and destroyed hundreds of homes and a resort in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Fanned by hurricane-force winds, the flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the theme park named after country music legend and local hero Dolly Parton. But the attraction was spared significant damage.
The fires spread quickly on Monday night, when winds topping 87 mph whipped up the flames, catching residents and tourists in the Gatlinburg area by surprise. Police banged on front doors and told people to get out immediately. Some trekked 20 minutes to catch lifesaving rides on trolleys usually reserved for tours and wedding parties.
“There was fire everywhere. It was like we were in hell,” said Linda Monholland, who was working at Park View Inn in Gatlinburg when she and five other people fled on foot. “Walking through hell, that’s what it was. I can’t believe it. I never want to see something like that again in my life, ever.”
“Hell opened up,” her co-worker Sissy Stinnett said.
In all, more than 14,000 residents and tourists were forced to evacuate the tourist city in the mountains, where some hotspots persisted and a curfew in place Tuesday night.
No details on the deaths were immediately available. More than a dozen people were injured.
The extent of the damage began to emerge even as smoke from the wildfires lingered late Tuesday afternoon.
The Castle, perhaps the largest and most iconic home in Gatlinburg, was destroyed. So was Cupid’s Chapel of Love, a wedding venue.
Entire churches were gone. Scorched cars parked outside set on their rims after their tires had melted away. The only sound came from the eerie screech of hotel fire alarms echoing through the empty streets.
Some Christmas decorations on lampposts and utility poles were on fire.
Marci Claude, a spokeswoman for both the city and the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, choked up as she surveyed the damage for the first time on a media tour.
“I’m just astonished this is my town,” she said.
On an aerial and driving tour of the damage in and around Gatlinburg, Gov. Bill Haslam said he was struck by the seemingly random nature of the fire that destroyed some structures and left others untouched. Noting that much of the downtown entertainment district was undamaged, Haslam said “it just could have been so much worse.”
As darkness fell on the area near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, open flames could still be seen burning near razed homes.
A line of strong to marginally severe storms was expected in east Tennessee on Tuesday night and into early Wednesday morning, with damaging straight-line winds of up to 60 mph and lightning possible.
Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said officials were still conducting search-and-rescue missions.
“We have not been able to get in all of the areas,” Miller said. “We pray that we don’t experience any more fatalities, but there are still areas that we are trying to get to” because of downed trees and power lines.
Though wildfires have been burning for several weeks across the drought-stricken South, with rainfall 10 to 15 inches below normal over the past three months in many parts, Monday marked the first time any homes and businesses were destroyed on a large scale.
The fire that roared through Gatlinburg actually began last week in the national park, and fierce winds carried burning embers into the city, park officials said. That original fire is believed to have been caused by people, national fire managers said in a report. Whether it was intentionally set or an accident hasn’t been explained by authorities.
After the fire escaped the park, flames spread further when winds blew trees onto power lines, sparking new fires and shooting embers over long distances. Hundreds of homes and other buildings, including a 16-story hotel, were damaged or destroyed.
Emergency officials ordered evacuations in downtown Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and in other areas of Sevier County near the Great Smoky Mountains.
About 1,200 people took shelter at the Gatlinburg Community Center and the Rocky Top Sports Park, an 80-acre sports facility-turned-shelter.
Tammy Dillon had just come home from work when police banged on her door about 9:30 p.m. Monday. She said she drove through a fiery scene to get to Rocky Top Sports World, where she spent the night in a car.
“We drove through flames, over hot embers in the road. It was awful,” Dillon said.
In downtown Gatlinburg, workers at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies left behind more than 10,000 fish and other animals. Police escorted a team of marine biologists and life support experts back into the aquarium Tuesday, and the animals were doing fine, Ripley’s said in a news release.
Based on preliminary surveys, the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa in Gatlinburg “is likely entirely gone,” the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency announced.
Although Dollywood was not damaged, more than a dozen cabins operated by the park were.
Dollywood suspended operations through at least Wednesday. Its DreamMore resort will be open on a limited basis as a shelter and for registered guests.
Parton said in a statement Tuesday that she was heartbroken.
“I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe,” Parton said.
Patrick Sours, who lived with his family in a Gatlinburg motel that was probably destroyed, said he doesn’t think reality has set in for most people.
“It hasn’t fully kicked in that, hey, we’re homeless,” he said. “We have no job. We have nothing.”