USA: At 3:25 p.m. on Nov. 28 of last year, News Sentinel photographer Brianna Paciorka posted a few seconds of video on Twitter.
“Forest fire smoke as you drive into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via Pigeon Forge,” she tweeted with the clip that showed a streetscape tinged yellow and almost obscured by a heavy blanket of haze.
The post went viral. The Smokies are the nation’s most popular national park, and people across the United States cared what was happening there.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that tweet marked the start of the News Sentinel’s yearlong coverage of the calamitous fire that even then was within a mile of Gatlinburg’s Mynatt Park.
How wrong I was
Like many others that evening, I misjudged the situation and gave instructions for Paciorka to return to Knoxville. Rain was forecast, and I figured she’d gotten what she could once the sun went down.
How wrong I was. Within a few hours, much of the News Sentinel news staff was mobilized, with some working through the night as the scale of the disaster became apparent.
Jessica Tezak, a former News Sentinel intern, shot an iconic photo of fires blazing on both sides of the Spur as she evacuated from Mount Le Conte, where she’d taken a job at the lodge.
Reporter Jamie Satterfield, a Sevier County resident and native, dodged and talked her way past first responders as she hiked into Gatlinburg, where — battling smoke, tears and spotty cell service — she provided the first media accounts of what was destroyed, and what had survived.
The following day, Nov. 29, knoxnews.com saw more than 63 million page views, a record not only for the News Sentinel but for any local news organization in the USA TODAY NETWORK.
Gatlinburg fire mattered to America
Gatlinburg mattered not just to Tennessee, but to America.
In the days and weeks that followed, the News Sentinel staff threw itself into covering the aftermath. Photographer Paul Efird provided the first aerial images of the destruction. Reporter Hayes Hickman raised the initial questions about the handling of evacuation alerts. Reporter Don Jacobs disclosed how the national park’s fire management had deviated from best practices. Satterfield broke the news that juveniles were suspected of starting the fire by playing with matches as they walked along the Chimney Tops trail.
The newspaper covered the evacuees and the massive relief effort. We teamed up with WBIR to raise nearly $700,000 for disaster relief by selling Tennessee Strong T-shirts. As part of the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee, we live-streamed Dolly Parton’s benefit telethon, which raised much more. Reporter Rachel Ohm profiled an immigrant family left homeless by the fire, then helped coordinate the delivery of a $10,000 check to them from an anonymous benefactor.
Monthly stories documented the recovery by following three families as they worked to rebuild their lives. On the Sunday front page, we saluted the heroism of two rangers with chainsaws who may have saved dozens of lives by clearing a clogged roadway. On the editorial page, we attacked the government’s reluctance to release public records, which just a few months ago were finally forthcoming.
Now, with the first-year anniversary of the tragedy upon us, the News Sentinel offers a special report.
A special report
In it, writer Matt Lakin draws on a year of reporting to vividly reconstruct how the fire grew from a spark to an inferno, and how the people of East Tennessee first stumbled then rose majestically to meet the emergency with characteristic courage and compassion.
The story is the centerpiece of a collection of articles, photos and multimedia presentations.
Video producer Angela Gosnell has created a documentary based on Lakin’s narrative. Reporter Steve Ahillen has built an interactive map showing how E-911 calls spread through Gatlinburg as fires erupted there.
Other stories report on everything from the success of charity drives to how graduate students tracked the movement of brown bears during the blaze.
Our coverage won’t be stopping here, either. The Gatlinburg fire was a seminal event in the history of East Tennessee, and the News Sentinel is committed to reporting the region’s reaction and recovery for years to come.