Michael Reed can’t find his wife and two daughters after being caught in last night’s evacuation mayhem near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
The wildfires sweeping the eastern part of the state — which claimed three lives in separate locations — engulfed Reed’s Gatlinburg home while he and his 15-year-old son Nicholas were away. It’s not certain whether his wife, Constance, 34; along with daughters Chloe, 12; and Lily, 9, fled the house in time.
“We’re just hoping for a miracle,” Reed told CNN affiliate WATE-TV in Knoxville on Tuesday.
The blaze spread quickly and with little warning. When Reed heard about the wildfire, he and his son tried to drive back to town.
“We got stuck in traffic at that point, and they wouldn’t let us turn around,” he said.
A few minutes after 8 p.m. Monday, Constance called to tell him “there were flames across the street from our house, and she didn’t know what to do,” Reed said, his voice quivering.
Reed told her to call 911. But he wasn’t able to be there to help his wife and daughters — a painful memory still haunts him.
“That was the last time I talked to her,” he said.
A narrow escape
Denise Bearden and her fiancé Mark Benzschawel were asleep when the wildfire burned dangerously close to their home.
Luckily, police pounded on their door just in time.
“We know that if they wouldn’t have woke us up, we’d probably be dead,” Benzschawel said. “As soon as I looked out the window to see who it was, there was just fire surrounding us.”
The couple rushed into the back of a patrol car and police drove them to safety. Along the way, they saw a nightmarish scene outside the car windows.
“There was fire out of both sides … it was crossing the street, ” Benzschawel said. “We didn’t think we’d make it.”
The couple is now staying at an evacuation shelter. They’re not sure when they’ll be able to go home.
“We’re not sure if our place will still be there or not,” Bearden said,
Watering down the house
Gary Owenby was born and raised in Gatlinburg. His final memories of his home included dousing it with water to try to save it from the raging inferno.
“You could see the fire coming down the ridge,” Owenby told HLN. “And as it grew closer, we were watering the house down, packing, stowing stuff in the car, trying to get the animals.”
He has no idea if it worked; Owenby fled to an emergency shelter. On Tuesday, standing outside in the rain, he seemed more grateful than distraught.
“We’re thankful to be alive,” he said. “No one here could imagine this — in this beautiful area. And we’re so thankful for the rain. We have no way of knowing if we have a home to go back to. That’s not important. The lives are important.”
He’s also come to terms with the possibility all his belongings are gone. And he’s OK with that.
“We’re going to dwell on the positives, we’re going to look to a brighter future, we can’t look back,” Owenby said. “The things I’ve known probably don’t exist anymore. And I can just close my eyes and have that memory in my heart. That will last.”
Hotel guests trapped by fire
Guests at Gatlinburg’s Park Vista Hotel tried to flee from the wildfire — only to find themselves trapped.
“The only road to get down from the hotel, trees had fallen down in the road and were just engulfed in flames,” guest Logan Baker told WATE. “Then the flames came up into the parking lot.”
Baker said firefighters told him it wasn’t safe to leave.
“We can’t go outside,” Baker told WATE. “The firefighters said the wind is blowing at 80 miles per hour, and the debris in the air (makes it) too hard to get us down right now.”
But before long, the hotel filled with smoke from the nearby inferno. Baker said firefighters busted open windows of the top floors to allow smoke to escape.
As he looked out from his hotel, Baker said all the trees around him were burnt. He said he could also see a spate of small fires in downtown Gatlinburg.
“It’s just engulfed,” he said. “I am also looking at the hillside past downtown Gatlinburg, and I can see cabins on fire.”
Wildfires bring heartbreak
Not all families received good news. Alice Elizabeth Hagler was looking forward to a family trip when the blazing inferno hit her house and took her life.
“She was so excited to meet us the next day in Savannah to head down to Disney this week,” Hagler’s daughter-in-law, Rachel Wood told CNN.
Hagler’s family members describe her as an extremely loving mom, mother-in-law and wonderful grandmother.
“My heart hurts so bad that she won’t be able to see Disney through my son’s eyes like she so wanted to,” Wood said. “This is so hard.”
Authorities found Hagler’s body in her home Wednesday evening. No further details were released.
The raging wildfires have claimed the lives of at least seven people. Several others are still missing.
‘God can give us signs’
Still searching for his family, Michael Reed “snuck back into Gatlinburg.” Soon, though, he found his house engulfed in flames.
“All of Wiley Oakley (Drive) was gone. I mean it was completely on fire,” he told WATE. “I actually drove our van up the road in the fire to get to our house, and when I got there it was completely engulfed.”
Reed has frantically called shelters to find his wife and daughters. He’s had sheriff’s deputies sent up to his address. But so far, no luck.
From his Pigeon Forge hotel room, Reed had found the last glimmers of hope in his Christian faith, even though the outlook seems bleak.
So far, authorities have assured Reed the three confirmed deaths happened in another location, meaning his family may be alive.
“We’re a very Christian family and I really believe that God can give us signs,” Reed told CNN.
Left with mere signs, he is only left to keep looking, knowing that’s all he can do.