GATLINBURG (WATE) – Dean Cato is working to put together to pick up the pieces after his chalet village home burned to the ground during the Gatlinburg fires.
Cato said he started calling 9-1-1 at around 9 or 10 and was told everything was fine and smoke was just being blown from the chimney tops. He said he called several times that day and was assured that everything was fine, but 30 minutes after his last phone call, fire closed in on him and his family.
“I’m angry… incredibly angry,” said Cato. “I’m making choices for my family’s safety based off what they are telling me.” His family was able to quickly escape with others, but Cato wants to know why his family wasn’t evacuated as a precaution.
However, a letter sent in December by Sevier County District Attorney Jimmy Dunn is making it difficult to answer those questions. In it, Dunn urged agencies to not release information on the wildfires.
Dunn said any release of information about the fire’s destruction is “extremely premature” and could compromise the investigation about the response to and investigation of the fire. However, Dwight Aarons, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee says Dunn does not have the lawful authority to withhold the information.
“The best that the D.A. could be doing is request it and someone, another official is willing to comply with it,” said Aarons. He says agencies could release public records like 911 calls and not be punished.
“Maybe you want a happy district attorney’s office? In case some issues arise with respect to the fire department, that there is an investigation that is needed,” said Aarons.
WATE 6 On Your Side sent several open record requests to the city of Gatlinburg, Sevier County and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park Sevice. After weeks, the agencies said the request are being processed.
Sevier County said they are speaking with the district attorney’s office to see what can be released. Sevier County dispatch says they are not authorized to release any information on the 911 calls. The city of Gatlinburg said their records are “related to an ongoing criminal matter and are confidential” and “once the criminal matter has concluded, the city will provide the records.”
“I’ve never seen a D.A. basically say the emergency response to a fire is confidential until I say it’s not,” said Deborah Fisher, the Executive Director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
Fisher said she believes the people of Sevier County deserve to know how officials responded. She says people’s taxpayers fund the emergency response infrastructure, protocol and employees.
Aarons says it is typically a judge who tells agencies to withhold information to maintain a fair trail. However, he says in juvenile court there is no jury, so there shouldn’t be concern about a trial being compromised. Therefore, Aaron said he thinks the letter may mean Dunn is preparing for a move to adult court.
Cato said he understands that some of the information could impact the case, but he says a lot of his questions have nothing to do with the two young men charged in connection with the fires.
“We are supposed to live in a country where we dno’t cover things up,” said Cato. He says he wants the informations so he can find some closure.