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Death toll rises to 13 in Tennessee wildfires

Death toll rises to 13 in Tennessee wildfires

Cell phones never got text message to evacuate.

Tennessee officials are now reporting that at least 13 people have died during the current wildfire disaster.

The fires, described as the state’s largest in 100 years, are believed to be human-caused, authorities said.

Twelve of the victims died as a direct result of the firestorm, and one victim died of a heart attack while trying to escape a blaze, officials said at a news conference this morning. The briefing was held in Gatlinburg — one the worst-hit cities in Sevier County.

“It certainly is distressing and saddening to all of us, and we are extending our sympathy to all the families that are involved,” Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said. “I can’t describe you the feeling that we have over this tragedy, and, especially, the loss of lives.”

Notifications are still going out the the families of the victims. However, the identities of several of the dead have been released.

Alice Hagler, 70, missing from Chalet Village, a collection of rental cabins, was one of three dead found in that neighborhood, her son has said. Memphis couple Jon and Janet Summers, who’d also been staying in Chalet Village, apparently died there as well, according to Jon Summers’ brother, Jim.

Officials confirmed the deaths of the Summers couple, Hagler and three others on Friday.

John Tegler, 71, and Janet Tegler, 70, a couple from Canada, also died in Chalet Village, said Vincent Tolley, an assistant medical examiner.

May Vance died of a heart attack due to smoke inhalation while fleeing the fire.

At least one other victim had been identified Friday, but that person’s relatives hadn’t yet been notified, Tolley said. Officials still are working to confirm the identities of the remaining dead.

Other information related to the Gatlinburg area blaze is also being released.

  • To date there have been 100 people who sustained injuries related to the fire and were treated at LeConte Medical Center.
  • 1,413 structures have been damaged or destroyed by the fire.
  • There are currently 19 crews, 47 engines, six helicopters, five dozers, 605 total personnel fighting the Chimney Top 2 Fire as a part of the Type 1 Federal Incident Management Team.

Tennessee officials are now beginning to look at the emergency alert system warnings that were issued, as there were complaints that people did not receive notifications via their cell phones.

Local, state and federal officials confirmed that the order to evacuate Gatlinburg amid Monday night’s deadly firestorm was not sent to mobile devices in the area.

The reason for the failure, however, remains unclear.

John Mathews, director of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency, said at a news conference Friday morning it was his understanding that an evacuation alert had been sent to mobile devices.

“If people did not receive the message we sent out, of course we are unsatisfied with it,” Mathews said in response to pointed questions.

The citywide evacuation was broadcast only on area TV and radio. And when it came — at 9:04 p.m. Monday, according to Tennessee Emergency Management Agency records — it was several hours after the flames had swept into Gatlinburg.

During an era in which more and more people are turning away from standard media sources, finding new ways to ensure the public will get warning messages during disasters will be critical. This may be one of the most important lessons learned during this tragedy.


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Henry Hawkins | December 4, 2016 at 4:50 pm

I’ve spent a lot of time in the given area, also in bordering western NC. It consists of vast runs of rolling ridges, mountaintops, valleys, and hollers, and I am not at all surprised that cell phone reception is spotty. I do wonder why local officials don’t seem to recognize this.

This may be one of the most important lessons learned during this tragedy.

What, that people actually need a phone call to tell them to avoid a forest fire?

    Henry Hawkins in reply to tom swift. | December 4, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    Because of short sight lines due to endless rolling ridges, everything coes upon you quick in the hills – storms, rain, and wildfires.

    Are you some sort of jerk? I can’t see how else to interpret a comment like yours.

Cell phone coverage in this area (western NC) is spotty at best. I’ve turned my head and lost calls. We’ve been burning for weeks over here. Evacuation notices are days in the making. Friends have been warned that a notice may be issued in a couple of days, so be ready. Then, the actual notice has frequently been a day’s notice. Often, the notice never comes. It hasn’t been a panic situation for the most part.

The Gatlinburg fire was surprisingly quick to get out of control. A few reasons that it’s different over there. First, Gatlinburg is very close to steep hillsides. Some of the buildings at the far edge of town are almost built into the hillside. Also, there were reports of 80 mph winds that day, so the fire was able to travel much more quickly than simply following the burn line. Last, I’m not sure how bad the drought has been over there, but western NC has been in a severe drought for a couple of months now.

    snopercod in reply to windbag. | December 4, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    Cell phone coverage in this area (western NC) is spotty at best.

    Very true. There is almost no coverage at my house and for that reason I installed a Yagi antenna on the chimney and ran a coax down to my office. I can plug in my ancient flip phone if I need to use the cell phone. I normally don’t plug it in, but I did when the Pinnacle Mountain fire was only 7 miles away. I signed up for text messages from the county FD, but wouldn’t count on them to save me.

Having lived over in Macon County, NC, Windbag, I know what you’re talking about. And I’m all too familiar with the kinds of visitors who come to the area to visit, too — most of whom are flatlandera from places where this is likely their first venture out of the city. Don’t count on them having the common sense to read the warning on the cell phone package that told them not to count on getting emergency messages on their cell phones; they probably threw it away anyway.

I work in telecommunications. I am constantly asked to install new systems for the purpose of using SMS to alert employees and other interested parties. I always tell them we need to keep the old systems in place in case of cellular systems failure.

Our facility has an in-building cellular network and yet during a recent weather event, none of it worked. I can only control internal devices and two major cellular hubs were disabled by the weather event. Nothing worked. Technology is not a solution to every problem.

The Rock Mountain Fire, which started Nov. 8 in Rabun County GA stopped 1.5 miles from my house,,, it was over 24,000 acres when it was finally over. Nov. 15 , I watched the fire come down the ridge on the opposite side of my valley, and I watched the helicopters coming with giant buckets of water for days. We have land lines, but no cell service, so I asked my neighbors how we would know if it was time to leave. They told me there would be a house to house visit. It took the fire a week to reach our valley, the area it burned is uninhabited and inaccessible. The firefighters managed to stop it when it finally reached a road. That fire didn’t make the news because it burned a national forest, not a resort community. So, having lived through this, I can tell you that cell phone notification is ridiculous. First, because of the spotty at best coverage, and second because many older people are not glued to a mobile device. My heart breaks for the people in Gatlinburg, I have to believe there should be a low tech notification system.
On a personal note, looking back, I waited too long…We were lucky, but now I know it was extremely naive.

JackRussellTerrierist | December 5, 2016 at 1:29 pm

Tennesseans are so backward and tight-fisted, there’s no infrastructure to handle a situation like this. Their response to and excuse for never progressing is always “It’s God’s will.”