As the fires closed in on Ripley's Aquarium in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, authorities ordered all employees to evacuate. With flames raging 50 yards away, workers took the time to turn on the emergency power systems for over 10,000 animals in their enclosures, hoped for the best, then fled to safety.
The Ripley’s Aquarium employees were among tens of thousands forced to leave the area on Monday night, as wildfires spread through Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. Believed to have been sparked by an arson, the fires ripped through the drought-stricken area and are still burning. Ripley’s employees said the fires passed without harming their animals. But elsewhere in the countym the blaze killed at least three people, forced over 14,000 evacuations, and destroyed hundreds of buildings, including cabins at Tennessee’s beloved Dollywood amusement park.
At least three people died in the fires, the Gatlinburg Fire Department announced Tuesday evening. The victims died in three separate incidents, which did not come to light until late in the day, after the fires partially subsided and locals began taking stock of their community.
“All is good. We are very lucky here at the aquarium,” Ripley’s general manager Ryan DeSear told the Knoxville News-Sentinel earlier on Tuesday. With the help of police, aquarium staff were allowed to reenter the park Tuesday morning to check on the facility’s fish, penguins, and sea turtles. The aquarium remains closed while evacuation orders are still in place, although Gatlinburg appears to have beaten back most of the flames.
The previous night had suggested a more uncertain fate. When the fires began rolling in off the Smoky Mountains, the aquarium announced that it would remain open as long as possible, as a refuge for neighbors who wished to escape the smoke.
“We typically don't like to post negative, but this is the current smoke/forest fire situation at the moment,” the aquarium wrote on its Facebook page, alongside a video of ominously thick smoke. “We're hoping for some rain this afternoon!”
The mood grew darker later in the day. As the fires grew closer, aquarium employees shared troubling videos of dense smoke moving on powerful winds. The sky glowed red in the distance.
“Arsonists need to go to prison for a long time,” an aquarium employee captioned the video.
Authorities suspect the the blaze, one of several that broke out on the nearby Chimney Tops Mountains last week, was deliberate. An arsonist could not have picked a more destructive time to act. The Smoky Mountains had been in the midst of a severe drought, receiving only 3.5 inches of rain since September 1. On Monday, when the fires began their out-of-control spread, Gatlinburg, Tennessee was experiencing powerful winds “in excess of 87 miles an hour,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said in a Tuesday press conference. “That is hurricane force.”
The heavy winds pushed a wall of flame toward the city, and likely knocked trees into power lines, which toppled and sparked new fires, Gatlinburg city manager Cindy Ogle, told Tennessee’s WATE. The fires were particularly devastating for Gatlinburg, which draws a brisk tourist trade for its proximity to the Smoky Mountains and nearby Dollywood amusement park.
“People are just devastated. We rely on Gatlinburg and the mountains for so much of our jobs and businesses in the tourist industry so it's very heartbreaking,” Miranda Garrison, a Sevier County resident told The Daily Beast. “Many of our friends lost their homes and jobs in the fire.”
On Monday, some tourists saw their vacation become a nightmare as the fire raged around their hotels. Guests at Gatlinburg’s Park Vista Hotel posted videos of themselves trapped inside the building while flames licked the outside and smoke crept in the windows.
“They told us we couldn’t leave because on the only road to get down from the hotel, trees had fallen onto the road and it was just engulfed in flame,” a guest told WATE on Tuesday.
Nearby, the Dollywood amusement park suffered some damage, but was largely unharmed by the fire. “An assessment this morning revealed no damage to the Dollywood park itself but more than a dozen cabins managed through Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins were damaged or destroyed,” the park wrote in a Tuesday release, announcing that they would be closed through Wednesday.
Country singer Dolly Parton, the park’s owner and namesake took to social media to express her grief for the area.
“I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken,” she wrote in a Facebook statement. “I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe. It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared.”
Hundreds of other buildings were burned or destroyed, including a large Gatlinburg resort which was burned to the ground. But the damage could have been even worse. In what some residents have hailed as a miracle, a long-delayed rain helpedd fight the flames Monday night.
“This is a fire for the history books,” Miller, the Gatlinburg fire chief said Tuesday, “The likes of this has never been seen here. But the worst is definitely over with.”
Already, the Gatlinburg community is coming together to rebuild, Garrison said.
"We've been trying to get together as much as we can to help everyone. We've been sending water to the rescue squads to send to the firefighters. We're gathering supplies and clothing to send to those who lost their homes. And trying to help out with shelters that have taken in animals.
"The community has really come together to help one another."