Gatlinburg wildfire responders honored at celebration
A monument titled "Those Who Answered The Call" was unveiled, with representations of Pigeon Forge, the Great Smoky Mountains and the responders
By Steve Ahillen
PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — “If you had not been here and we hadn’t had that rain, we don’t know what would have happened to our little town,” said Pigeon Forge City Manager Earlene Teaster.
She was speaking before a group of first responders from fire and rescue departments throughout Tennessee who came to Sevier County to battle the fire that swept through the area on Nov. 28, 2016.
They came back Tuesday for a day of thanks that culminated at Patriot Park and also included a luncheon.
A monument titled “Those Who Answered The Call” was unveiled. The 4,400-pound monument includes a 10-foot square stainless steel wall that holds iconic representations of Pigeon Forge, the Great Smoky Mountains and the first responders.
Pigeon Forge officials had invited more than 300 first responders to the event. The city’s fire chief, Tony Watson, said 64 fire and rescue departments came to the city's aid the night of the fire.
“This is the first time our greater family has had an opportunity to share our stories and the powerful emotions associated with them,” he said. “It was a day to remember, share stories, hugs and a few tears.”
In addition to the first responders and their families, many residents of the area came to show their appreciation for the job that was done on that fateful night when more than 2,400 structures in Sevier County were damaged or destroyed, and 14 people died.
“It’s wonderful to be recognized,” said Royce Hamby, chief of the Huntsville Volunteer Fire Department. “Volunteer fire departments don’t usually get much appreciation.”
“We don’t find enough opportunities to show our appreciation for these people who put their lives on the line every day for us,” said Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Director Patrick Sheehan. “It is very commendable of Pigeon Forge to give all of us this opportunity to express our gratitude.”
“I think many of us were looking forward to this opportunity to come together,” said John Mathews, who was Sevier County Emergency Management Director at the time of the fires. “It gives us a chance to remember our loss and remember all of the hard work that many people did when the fires hit and in the weeks that followed.”
“It was such a tremendous response from so many different agencies and departments,” said Clay Jordan, acting superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “They were all united by their desire to work together to save lives.
“It is great that Pigeon Forge is paying tribute tonight,” he added. “It is just another step in the healing process.”
Teaster pointed out that it has been a year of healing and a year of rebuilding in Pigeon Forge “and we thank you all for what you have done for us.”
Copyright 2017 Knoxville News-Sentinel