Cots studded with personal belongings filled the basketball court. Children laughed and chased each other up the curved staircase to the second floor. Fold-up tables covered with packaged food and toiletries lined the wall, and the concession stand — located behind a pair of portable massage chairs where volunteers were hard at work relaxing the muscles of shelter residents and first responders — held a team of volunteers whipping up a hot breakfast for those who had been displaced by the fire.
Though the number of people housed at Red Cross shelters had diminished substantially from the 1,400 people served the first night, the organization’s two shelters still held 200 people. Dec. 2 was the first day that survivors would be allowed back in the city to check on their belongings, so the building was full of comings and goings.
“Everything hunky-dory here?” asked a volunteer as she stopped by a table in the sunny lobby where three fire survivors were breakfasting.
“If it gets any better I’m going to buy a house up here,” replied Lee McDaniel.
There wasn’t any sarcasm in his voice. In fact, McDaniel, 73, and his wife Jody, 68 — both from New Orleans — had spent the past half hour talking about how wonderful the people of Tennessee had been to them.
“I went through Katrina in New Orleans,” said Jody. “I only wish that people reacted like the people here.”
Despite the near-death experience of Monday night, their faces were relaxed, their attitudes cheerful.
“It was smoky all day, so that’s why we had the curtains closed like dumb idiots,” Jody said. “We didn’t know what was going on. When it (smoke) overtook our room we couldn’t breathe. I called the front desk and she said, ‘We’ve been trying to reach y’all.’ I said, ‘Really? We’ve been right here.’ She said, ‘Honey, you have to evacuate.’ I opened the curtain and everywhere, each way you looked, was fire. Unbelievable.”
She and Lee were the last guests to leave Towns Square Resort that night. They got separated on the way down in the confusion of smoke and wind. Jody took the elevator and Lee, whose military training prohibited him from using an elevator when alarm bells were ringing, took the stairs. He stashed their stuff in the laundry room on the way down.
Lee and Jody were grateful for the hospitality shown them in the shelter, and while they were eager to start the drive back to New Orleans, the McDaniels had no hesitation in pledging that they’d make their Thanksgiving trip to Gatlinburg again next year.
Olga Alvarez, 54, shared their sunny smiles as she breakfasted across the table. But unlike Lee and Jody McDaniels, Alvarez had no home to go back to.
“I’m so sorry,” Jody said.
“I’m not,” replied Alvarez. “It was just material things. As long as my uncle and the dogs got out, I’m good.”
Alvarez had been staying with her “adopted” uncle Chuck off of Cherokee Orchard Road when the fire came. She’d been on the balcony since 2 p.m. that day, recording everything on her phone. She could see buildings going up in flame all around her.
“It was bad,” she said.
They all got out — Alvarez, Chuck and the two dogs — but both Chuck’s and Alvarez’ residences are gone. Or so, at least, she assumes. Alvarez still hasn’t been able to get back on the property, though the police have told her that everything in that area is destroyed. She’s at least glad to know that she still has a job — the hotel where she works as a housekeeper is still standing.
As of Monday, Dec. 5, she was still staying at the shelter, unsure of what to do next.
Somehow, though, Alvarez stayed positive. She laughed and smiled all through breakfast, doling out hugs with abandon.
“There’s too many people out there that are already upset because of everything they lost,” she said. “If I see them crying, I’ll be the first one giving them a hug.”
It’s probably because of the example her grandparents set, she said. During her upbringing in New York City, her grandfather was a pastor and her grandmother made it a point to get up early and fix breakfast for drug addicts and homeless people in the neighborhood.
“We’ll live,” she said. “We’ll find something eventually.”
Over in the opposite corner of the lobby, Ligia Quiroz was having a harder time being confident in the future. She and her husband Santos had lost everything. They escaped without much besides their third-grade daughter Sobrina and the car.
“We just ran out of the house with just the things that we had and a bag of clothes that we were going to take to the laundry,” said Sobrina.
Bright-eyed and smiley, Sobrina is the only one in her family who speaks English. She served as the bouncy translator between her mother and The Smoky Mountain News reporter, relaying the words with a smile that didn’t always match the weight of the meaning.
It was horrible, Ligia said. It looked like the fire was going to consume the town — she was terrified.
After fleeing the fire, Sobrina reported, they set about looking for a hotel, grateful to finally find one — that one being the Red Cross shelter at Rocky Top.
As to what happens after this, they’re not sure. They’ve been in Gatlinburg for eight years, but now their house is gone, and nearly all their possessions. They don’t have any relatives in the area. When asked whether the family planned to stay in Gatlinburg or go elsewhere, Ligia had no answer.
“We don’t know yet,” she said.
Across the room, Leverne Scott, 62, and his wife, Sharh, were preparing to leave for their home in Florida. They were eager to get out of the shelter, and to see what was left of the possessions they’d left in the hotel, but they weren’t shy about admitting they were going to miss their adopted family — specifically, volunteers Joan Miller, Dawn Cotter and Alivia Cotter, who were tagging along with the Scotts to see the hotel where they’d been staying when the fire came.
“We plan on being together the rest of the day,” Leverne said.
Miller and the two Cotters — Joan is Dawn’s mother and Alivia’s grandmother — have been at the shelter every day since the fire. They’ve kept busy with finding people clothes to wear, schlepping them back and forth to Sevierville and driving them to their motels.
“This community is really a close-knit community,” Dawn said. “Even if Red Cross wasn’t here, these people would still have been taken care of.”
Neither she nor Joan lost their homes or their jobs in the fire. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been impacted. Dawn, for one, has lived in Gatlinburg for 25 years.
“It hits home,” she said. “The wedding chapel I got married in is burned. The restaurant I had my baby shower in is burned. People we work with, their homes are gone. If you think about it, 25 years is your life here. It’s just a shame.”