Gatlinburg Wildfire: Some Deaths Came From Unusual Causes, Autopsies Show

The family of Pamela Johnson said they were notified on Friday that DNA confirmed that she was last unidentified victim of the fires.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Their names first appeared on lists of the missing — sometimes on prayer requests from family and friends.

One by one, they joined the daily roll call of those killed in the Gatlinburg wildfires — a Memphis couple vacationing with their children, a mother and her two daughters, a beloved local pastor.

Records released this week shed new light on the deaths of the 14 people lost to the fires that raged through town the night of Nov. 28, 2016, and offer a closer glimpse into the moments the flames breached the city limits at the head of hurricane-force winds after months of drought. Besides the deaths, the fire injured nearly 200 other people and damaged nearly 2,500 homes and businesses for a total estimated cost that could exceed a billion dollars.

The records don't hold all the answers. A massive power failure that night shut down the emergency operations center where authorities directed the city's initial response to the blaze, along with the police department's dispatch center, making communication almost impossible for a while.

PHOTOS: Gatlinburg wildfire victims

Some records, such as calls to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency's command center in Nashville, have been lost due to technical failure. Some have yet to be released, such as records of the National Park Service attempts to contain the blaze to the remote trail where it began five days before the firestorm erupted.

Notes kept by those inside the emergency operations center tell the story of a fight on too many fronts.

"Fire heading up mountain," one set of notes reads. "Resource(s) depleted; requesting more. ... Flames greater than 40 feet ... Wall of fire ... Overrun ... Retreating."

The days after include terse descriptions of searching communities door-to-door for dead, injured and missing. Some notes consist of little more than three letters: "DOA," or dead on arrival.

Most of the fire's victims died of either burns or smoke inhalation, according to autopsies performed at the Regional Forensic Center in Knoxville. Three died from other causes.

The victims and cause of death

• Elaine Brown, 81, died in a car crash on Wears Valley Road. "Ms. Brown was fleeing the forest fire ... when her vehicle left the roadway," according to the autopsy report.

• Bradley William Phillips, 59, apparently died when a tree limb, snapped by the high winds, fell on him outside his home on Long Hollow Road.

• May Evelyn Norred Vance, 75, died of a heart attack as she and her husband, Jimmy, ran from the blaze. The couple had been married for 53 years.

• Constance Reed, 34, and her two daughters, Chloe, 12, and Lily, 9, died together. Mother and daughters had run from their home in the Chalet Village community after they watched a neighbor's house burst into flame. Authorities recovered their remains near a home not far away on Wiley Oakley Road.

• Jon Summers, 71, and his wife, Janet, 61, had come to Chalet Village from Memphis on vacation with their three sons, who suffered severe burns. Searchers found Summers' body face-down at the bottom of an embankment after the fire with three cellphones lying nearby. Records don't indicate whether Janet Summers' body was found in the same area.

• John Tegler, 71, and his wife, Marilyn, 70, of Atlanta apparently died trying to escape their Chalet Village home. Authorities recovered John Tegler's body from a nearby road, according to autopsy records. He'd apparently collapsed from smoke inhalation and been struck by at least one car. Records don't indicate how far away Marilyn Tegler's body was found.

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• Alice Hagler, 70, never made it out of her home on Piney Butte Road in Chalet Village. Searchers found her remains inside the burned-out wreckage.

• Pamela Jean Johnson, 59, and Robert A. Hejny, 65, perished in their rooms at the Traveler's Motel on East Parkway. Searchers found Johnson's remains in Room 4, Hejny's in his bed in Room 13.

• The Rev. Ed Taylor, 85, had performed more than 85,000 marriages at his wedding chapel over a career of more than 50 years. A Gatlinburg police officer found his body at the bottom of an embankment not far from his burned home on Woodland Drive.

The autopsy records had been sealed for months under a court order obtained by Jimmy Dunn, 4th Judicial District attorney general. Dunn claimed the release of the reports could somehow interfere with the prosecution of two Anderson County teenage boys accused of starting the fire by playing with matches inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Prosecutors ultimately dropped charges against the boys, saying the evidence wasn't enough to tie the fire the boys started to the blaze that ravaged Gatlinburg five days later.

Follow Matt Lakin on Twitter: @mlakin

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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