One by one, a crowd of more than 500 people, including first responders and volunteers, bowed their heads in remembrance of the 14 people killed one year ago Tuesday in Tennessee’s deadliest wildfire, which ravaged Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and caused millions of dollars in damage.
Organized by Gatlinburg and Sevier County officials, the ceremony also paid tribute to the 24,000 volunteers and dozens of first responder agencies from across the state who braved the flames, assisted with evacuations, passed out water and helped Sevier County residents during one of their grimmest nights.
City and county officials used the ceremony to announce plans to build a one-mile-long memorial trail that will honor all the victims, first responders and volunteers. The trail will be built across from Zoder’s Inn & Suites right off the Parkway, Mark Adams, president of the Gatlinburg Covention and Visitors Bureau, said.
“It’s something that will be everlasting. It will be a very peaceful setting down by the river (and) a place to reflect,” Adams said.
“It will serve two purposes. We’ll have one component that will memorialize those that lost their lives during the fire and those families, as well. Then we’ll have another component that will pay respects and honor all the first responders, the volunteers that gave up their time and anyone who donated money to us over this last year.”
Adams said the public-private initative, which includes a bridge across Cliff Branch, is still in the early stages, and it’s undecided exactly how the victims and first responders will be represented on the trail.
“There will be several different ways to honor those. We’re still working out the final details, but we do anticipate incorporating pieces of the bridge (into the memorial) and having memorials on either side of the bridge, as well,” Adams said.
“Behind the scences, work has already began (on the memorial). The public will probably start seeing some actual work happen hopefully in the next 120 to 180 days. Because of the scope and size of the project, we’re looking for completion hopefully in the fall of 2018.”
Held in a large gymnasium inside Rocky Top Sports World Complex, the ceremony’s location served as a refuge for hundreds of people who fled their homes on that November 2016 night. It’s been estimated that around 1,200 people received help at that location on the night of Nov. 28, 2016.
Will Nunez, a resident of Sevierville, was at Rocky Top volunteering that devastating night and attended Tuesday’s ceremony.
In the days following the fires, Nunez said he was volunteering from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and making eight supply runs a day.
“I thought it was a perfect location, especially with everybody that came here from all over the states (during the wildfires) to coordinate and help each other out,” Nunez said.
“That’s the beautiful thing about the Smokies is that everybody came together that night and orchestrated this as a family. Neighbors grew into long-term relationships.”
To this day, Nunez said he still has close relationships with people he met that night while preparing meals and handing out supplies.
Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller announced during the ceremony that all volunteers, including Nunez, and first responders would receive a specially engraved “challenge coin” as appreciation for their help during the fires.
The coins were etched with the logos of Sevier County and Gatlinburg, as well as law enforcement and fire department badges.
Miller said the coins originated in World War I and were given to soliders to commemorate exemplary service, either after a battle or to show appreciation for a job well done.
“Today, we hope to do the same (by giving you a challenge coins) to say thank you to the first responders ... but more importantly to show you our appreciation,” Miller said.