Tennessee fire survivor questions why evacuations weren't called sooner
GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WLOS) - Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has openly acknowledged concerns whether Gatlinburg officials could have done more to better respond to fire threats. But victims, like 28-year-old Constantin Tolkachev, are still reeling from what he estimates as $30,000 of all his possessions that are gone after his downtown Gatlinburg apartment burned to the ground.
"I lost everything," said Tolkachev. "All my belongings. I've been in this country for the past six years. I even took some of the stuff that was really important to me from Russia, and I'm remembering the house. My father died and I remember all the stuff I had from my father who died 10 years ago. It's all burned out. Everything."
Tolkachev began to cry. The Alamo Steakhouse where he worked is also gone. He says smoke filled the town last Monday.
"It was horrible, hard to breathe. I have a couple of photos you can see like a yellow hue. People were still in Gatlinburg. I can see tourists walking around. I saw a couple of friends walking around," he said.
Tolkachev added he talked to a firefighter on the street around 6 p.m. on Monday. An evacuation order had not been issued. He told News 13 he called the Gatlinburg Fire Department and 911 a couple of hours later. He said no one told him to leave. But within the hour, at 9 p.m., Tolkachev said he saw fire out his back window at his apartment, and he knew he had to run.
"If I just follow what that lady said or what the firefighter said and what the guy on 911 said, I would probably die. We got so many people that died up there. I think they should accept the fact they screwed up the evacuation, that more stuff could be done," Tolkachev said.
Other fire victims at shelters felt the same way.
"There was no siren, no warning," said one evacuee. "If I had not walked out of my house, my front door because I was uneasy at 9 p.m. at night, the fire topped the ridge a quarter mile. We would be dead."
Assistant superintendent for The Great Smoky Mountains National Park Clay Jordan gave News 13 a timeline of how the fire progressed.
On Wednesday, November 23, the Chimney Tops 2 fire began on a remote ridge 5.5 miles from Gatlinburg.
"It was a smoldering, creeping fire," Jordan explained. "We could not put it out with aerial bucket drops."
By 8 p.m. on Sunday, Jordan said the fire had grown to 35 acres. The Forest Service used aerial water attacks. But by dawn Monday, more than a week ago, Jordan said park officials discovered embers had blown closer to Gatlinburg, to two new ridges at Chimney's Picnic area and Bullhead ridge. At that time, the fire was 4.5 miles from Gatlinburg.
By 11:30 a.m. Monday, Jordan said the fire had spread here to the Twin Creeks complex where there are park service buildings. It was 1.5 miles away from Gatlinburg.
The complex is at the far end of Cherokee Orchard Road, which goes straight into Gatlinburg. As the fire continued to spread, Jordan said Gatlinburg Fire mobilized, as well as the Tennessee Department of Forestry.
At about the same time on Monday, at 11:46 a.m., Gatlinburg's Convention and Visitor's Bureau sent out an air quality warning by email. The last line stated: "The fire currently poses no immediate threat to structures...or any areas outside the park boundaries including Gatlinburg."
"Why didn't (they) try to evacuate us early that morning or earlier by a couple days," Tolkachev said. "They know the fire is coming."
Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) said it did warn people Monday through news conferences, news releases, door to door knocking and social media.
But Tolkachev said he got no warning. He's without a job with no restaurant to work at, and he is still in shock.
"As far as I've been hearing, all they're trying to do is save some businesses. They're trying to keep the prestige of Gatlinburg so people would not leave and stay for their Christmas parade."
Monday, November 28, Gatlinburg officials issued an evacuation notice at 9 p.m. on TV, radio and weather radio, but the notice did not go out to cell phones, which impeded notification.