By Scott Robertson
Fourteen are gone forever now, and we cannot bear to think of the way in which they died. They were like us, East Tennesseans, who more likely than not spent time thinking how lucky they were to live in these peaceful mountains.
A little over a week ago though, all peace was blown away. Wind gusts near 90 miles an hour swept flames down from the mountains, through inhabited hollows and into the town of Gatlinburg. The videos that were taken by fleeing motorists showed hellish scenes of flames in the darkness on both sides of the road, behind, and ahead.
Later, firefighters told us the fire was most likely set by humans.
There is, of course, the possibility that someone set a campfire with no ill-intent. But lack of intent could never excuse the result. The showers that fell soon after the fire constituted only the second rain event in two months for most of East Tennessee. To set such a campfire would have been wildly irresponsible. There had already been wildfires in the Cherokee National Forest. Governor Bill Haslam had issued a burn ban for every county east of Rutherford back on Nov. 14.
Then there is the other possibility. The experts at FEMA tell us there are a few common motives for wildfire arson. Most wouldn’t at first examination seem to apply to a fire that started around the Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Crime concealment, political terrorism, profit, revenge, fires set by firefighters with hero complexes…none appear as likely as the other two motives on FEMA’s list, vandalism and thrill-seeking.
Not that there could be any justification for someone having set those fires, but how painful would it be for those who lost loved ones to think that this horror befell them because some ne’er-do-wells got bored? If that were to have been the case, then FEMA calling the perpetrators “humans” would be a generous use of the term.
And yet, thank God, in the ashen shadow of this catastrophe, the light of human goodness shines in East Tennessee. I have stood in line at a grocery store and watched shoppers who do not appear to have much spare cash themselves donate to the relief efforts. It comes as no surprise, but it still touches the heart.
In fact, I am about to break one of my few rules of column writing because of what I have seen. I never invite people to give money. Were I to do so for one good cause then I would be inundated by supporters of others wanting the same consideration.
I’ll go one better by breaking a second rule. In addition to asking you to give to charities I know to be good, responsible, well-managed organizations such as the Red Cross, which is taking donations at Kroger locations locally, I’m also asking you to support something that isn’t even fully established yet.
I’m doing this because I was in the room with Steve Smith, the president of K-VA-T Food Stores, which owns Food City, and Logan McCabe of Bristol Motor Speedway when they introduced the Gatlinburg/Sevier County Relief Fund. Food City and BMS have pledged that 100 percent of the donations collected will go directly to relief efforts.
“I’ve been talking with the mayor of Gatlinburg and the Chamber of Commerce down there,” Smith told me, “and though we don’t have the details entirely worked out yet of how we’ll disburse those funds, I hope people will give us the benefit of the doubt that we’ll get it done.”
When one considers it’s been less than two weeks since Bristol Motor Speedway’s chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities oversaw the donation of more than $1 million to not-for profits in the region, that would seem to lend some credence to the effort.
I didn’t need anything more than Steve Smith’s word, frankly. In all the years I’ve covered his business, he has shown again and again that he understands the most important thing is people – be they customers or employees. When Steve Smith talked about the five Food City employees he knew had lost their homes in the blaze, he did something I’ve never seen him do. Just for a moment he lost his composure. As he said, “these people are hurting, and they’re hurting bad,” his voice cracked. These were his people.
They are our people.
Food City locations will be accepting donations through the end of the day today, and Bristol Motor Speedway will continue to accept donations through the end of Speedway in Lights Jan. 7.
I ask you to do what you can. There are many dark days ahead for Sevier Countians. Let the light from your heart help show the way past the flames in the darkness.