The death toll from wildfires that consumed the eastern Tennessee town of Gatlinburg this week has risen to 13, state officials said Friday.
Twelve of the victims died directly from the fire, while one woman suffered a fatal heart attack caused by smoke inhalation as she fled from the flames, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said in a news conference this afternoon.
“It’s certainly distressing and sad to all of us, and we are extending our sympathy to all of the families that are involved,” the mayor said. “I can’t describe to you the feelings we have to this tragedy and especially the loss of lives,” he added.
Another 85 people were mostly treated for burns at a nearby hospital, according to officials.
The mayor also increased his report of the number of buildings damaged by the firestorm to 1,000. Many residents were allowed past checkpoints to survey the damage to their properties, the Associated Press reported.
More than 14,000 Gatlinburg residents were forced to evacuate the resort town Monday night, after a fire originated in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park four miles away. High winds spread the fire, carrying embers in many directions.
John Matthews of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency said residents should have received an initial evacuation alert on their mobile device around 9 p.m. Monday. He added that power outages and limited cellphone reception prevented that alert from reaching some people, while wildfires were ravaging the area.
The mayor, however, told reporters that “we’re not going to get into Monday-morning quarterbacking.”
“We did the best we could with what we had, and we’re sorry,” he said.
Among the victims was a couple, Jon and Janet Summers of Memphis, both 61, who were vacationing in the area with their three adult sons.
The family had tried to flee the fire by car, but when they were blocked by debris, they attempted to escape on foot, The Commercial Appeal reported.
However, the couple was separated from their sons, who were eventually rescued and hospitalized. After days of waiting to hear about the couple’s whereabouts, the brothers’ uncle Jim Summers confirmed the couple’s deaths in a post on Facebook.
“The boys, swaddled in bandages with tubes hanging out and machines attached, were allowed to break quarantine, and were together in the same room, briefly, when I confirmed their parents’ death,” the uncle wrote. “Their injures pale in comparison with their grief. Their extended family and friends are now their family,” he added.
The National Park Service said the cause of the fire is under investigation but likely involved human action.