GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) – Workers in Gatlinburg are thanking first responders who protected the city during last year’s wildfires. If not for their fast action, Gatlinburg’s business district could have burned like 2,400 other structures did on November 28, 2016.
Rocky Top Sports World is where thousands of residents were sheltered in the days following the fire last year. Beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the complex, the city will honor and recognize first responders and the 14 people who died in the wildfires.
People who work in Gatlinburg are grateful to the courageous firefighters.
For 22 years, Kathy Saiti has been a server at the Park Grill in Gatlinburg. She worked the weekend shift a year ago. When smoke started filling the streets of Gatlinburg and fire in the mountains could be seen from the streets, she was frightened.
“Of course everybody in the area was terrified of what could and what was happening at the time. A lot of people fearful of their jobs,” said Saiti.
Another server, Veronica Gomez, the mother of two children, lived just blocks from the grill. She was not at work on November 28, but from her home, she saw a roaring fire silhouetting the Park Grill. Those are firemen on the roof spraying water on the building.
“Everybody was thinking it was gone. We didn’t know anything until the next day,” said Gomez.”They did a wonderful job saving this building. The fire was in our back parking lot, down the curbing back there.”
Behind the grill, flying embers torched the restaurant’s bakery; only the foundation is left. The bakery is about just 50 yards from the rear entrance of the Park Grill, a close call. Flames never reached the main building, thanks to the firefighters.
“They acted so quick to jump on the roof and start pouring water all over it,” said Gomez. “They did, they did a very good job. I think it was a miracle.”
Diana Simeon and her husband left Gatlinburg for Florida on November 27. Two cabins they owned were destroyed.
“Two nights later, I got a call [saying] you lost both of them. Pretty heartbreaking,” said Simeon.
This past Thanksgiving weekend, the Simeon family returned to Gatlinburg. They haven’t given up on their favorite vacation spot. The couple is close to rebuilding their cabins and are thankful to the valiant efforts of first responders.
“They protected our whole downtown Gatlinburg area. They couldn’t protect everything, but they certainly protected the most precious thing that Gatlinburg has. They certainly tried to protect the park as much as they could,” said Simeon.
As flames raced toward downtown buildings, the efforts of dozens of firefighters saved the city and many are grateful for that.
“I’d like to thank all of them. They are wonderful people. They put their lives on the line to save the area and all the people around,” said Saiti.
“Everybody in this town really appreciates their effort and their courage,” Gomez said.
In addition to honoring the bravery of first responders, the city of Gatlinburg is expected to announce a permanent memorial to remember those who died. The city will also recognize the progress the community has made in the last year.