It’s hard to believe a full year has passed since that infamous night in Gatlinburg – the night the sky turned orange, smoke filled the air, and wildfires raged through the city. On November 28, 2016, Sevier County wildfires burned thousands of structures, injured nearly 300 people, and 14 people sadly lost their lives.
As the nearest hospital to the fires, LeConte Medical Center’s staff had the emotional duty to take care of their own community, their families, and one another. This is their story.
“Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I looked outside and noticed the sky was really bad. It was orange,” remembers Robbie Haley, plant engineering supervisor at Leconte Medical Center. His next action was crucial in keeping the county’s only hospital open on that fateful night.
“I started noticing some smoke entering the building, so I started calling people and saying ‘hey we have some problems here.’ We checked the isolation rooms, and started adjusting the unit’s air so that we wouldn’t pull in the smoke,” says Haley. “I knew that with the smoke the way it was outside, if we lost the building to the smoke, we would have never got it back. We worked straight through until midnight making sure the smoke didn’t come in.”
While Robbie was working the air vents, Teresa Huskey had just finished her regular day-shift as the radiology manager at the hospital. “It wasn’t long after I arrived home that they paged us out to come in. I live in Pittman Center, and I looked out and saw all of these lines of cars. And it was people evacuating Gatlinburg into Pittman Center. So, when they called us in, I just couldn’t believe what was going on.”
House supervisor Abe McPherson was already in LeConte’s ER as things starting to pick up.
“One thing I remember the most about that night was every time you would go out to retrieve a patient, it sounded like a war zone. You could hear every propane tank explosion from Gatlinburg, and sirens ….”
“And the ash,” chimes in Teresa. “There was ash everywhere.”
As healthcare providers, you push through to provide care to the community, but at LeConte this fire was not just “the” community. It was our community.
“It was hard,” says Huskey, “because we kept hearing conflicting reports. At first, we heard Gatlinburg is gone, then I heard the fire was behind where my mom lives. You know, some of our people lost homes, and they just kept going. For a while, you didn’t know where anybody was due to the evacuations.”
As the fire continued to rage, there was a point in the night when it appeared the hospital itself may have to evacuate. “We heard the fire was close to DreamMore, which is just a few miles from the hospital,” Huskey recalls. “A police officer from Knoxville said ‘we need someone local to help,’ and I said ‘I’m local, let’s go.’
“We drove up and saw the fire on the mountain behind the resort, and we called back to let the hospital know it’s getting closer.”
At this point, families were showing up to help out as volunteers. Registration manager Samantha McGill’s husband offered to go up high on the roof, despite the wind, to monitor the wildfires.
“That’s when it looked like we may have to evacuate to Smokies Stadium,” remembers Haley. “That’s when the seriousness of the situation really set it.”
Thankfully, the rain arrived and the hospital did not have to evacuate. After working for nearly 20-30 hours, the morning light finally arrived and the fires calmed.
“I was so impressed with the compassion shown to people coming in,” Huskey says. “You know, people lost everything, and they were bringing in their pets, and we set them up in the chest pain center. We were not going to separate …”
She chokes up.
“The only family ….all they had left,” McPherson finishes.
“The next day, a couple of us got to go up and help the hot spot crews,” adds Callie West, stroke coordinator. “The aquarium was one of the staging areas. That was a good place for it because when we would come back from seeing all of that devastation the animals really helped calm everyone down. It was amazing how this community came together.”
As the weeks and months followed, LeConte Medical Center continued to be a hub of support. “Over at the warehouse, I don’t know how many hours those guys put in. It was all late at night, out in the cold,” says David Howard, cath lab supervisor.
“With that type of humanity, that type of effort going on, it’s amazing to me that we have the problems in the world that we have,” Howard continues. “That much compassion and caring ….that was impressive to me.”
“We drill for this over and over and over again,” chimes in Larry Loveday, ER nurse manager. “But to truly have a real crisis shows you how everybody united as a team. Everybody was strong. And it wasn’t just us, it was our entire system, Covenant Health. We had folks from Morristown come in, Parkwest, Oak Ridge. It was an incredible scene.”
“We want people to know we’re still here,” Loveday adds. “Gatlinburg is still here. Pigeon Forge is still here. I’ve traveled out of state, and it seems a lot of people think it’s all gone. We’re still here.”