A question mark at the end of an article’s title usually indicates the answer is a resounding “no.” However, the quiet town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee looks as if it’s trying to quietly dust something under the rug involving the largest fire in a century for Tennessee.
What most people can’t or won’t tell you is that the story of Gatlinburg was a story told through social media. Mainstream press initially reported the night of November 28, 2016 that Gatlinburg was being voluntarily evacuated due to heavy smoke. The next day the world woke to mountains burning, and many cherished tourist sites destroyed.
Social media served as a warning mechanism for Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge to evacuate, far better than the government’s in-place warning mechanisms. Luke Walker, the “Giant that Saved Gatlinburg,” took to Facebook Live the night of the fires and displayed what local networks wouldn’t. Eventually he started running from building to building telling people to get out.
Luke Walker’s Facebook Live feed spurred his friend Vinnie Vineyard into action. Vinnie ran a taxicab operation in Pigeon Forge. On viewing Luke’s Facebook Live video, Vinnie posted his phone number on Facebook with a message: “If you’re stranded in Gatlinburg and need to get out, call me.”
Between the two, there’s no telling how many lives both saved. Regardless, there’s no denying Luke Walker’s Facebook feed alerted more people at a faster rate than the town’s emergency management system.
WLOS-TV’s Kimberly King picked up that failure and asked about it during a December press conference featuring Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters, Governor Bill Haslam, and Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. King’s questioning became so persistent Waters shut the conference down. At the time, King drew considerable scorn from the community for needling the assembled officials into “Monday Morning Quarterbacking.”
That scorn might well be unfounded. Let’s take a look at what’s happened since the fires were extinguished.
- Gatlinburg’s mayor, Sevier County’s Mayor, and the Gatlinburg City Commission refused to disclose any records related to the Gatlinburg fires, citing “confidentiality” and a desire to protect the identities of the two juvenile defendants accused of starting the blaze. It would take repeated requests and court filings to get these records released.
- The City Commission changed its procedures for public speaking during Commission meetings, citing a need to “streamline” the process. Any member of the public wishing to speak during a commission meeting now has to submit their request in writing, five days before the meeting. Speakers must include their name, address, phone number, and the subject on which they would like to speak. If you get to speak, you get three minutes. Stray from your topic, and you can be booted from the meeting as “out of order.” Go over time, and you’re booted as “out of order.” If you dare speak to any member of the Commission in less than a respectful manner, you’re shown the door. All proposed topics can be denied discussion by a majority Commission vote.
- Emergency Center calls from the night of the fires went “missing.”
- Someone doctored a prosecutorial agreement allowing Sevier County District Attorneys the right to prosecute crimes committed in certain Federal Parks. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, site of the blaze that swept into Gatlinburg, was mysteriously added in the middle of the original document and altered to look as if it had always been present. Without government approval, only the Feds could prosecute the juveniles. As of this writing, no names are coming from Nashville as to who doctored the agreement and left it with the Secretary of State.
- Documentary filmmakers would come to the area long after the wildfires did their damage, attempting to honestly chronicle the events of a momentous fire. They would receive death threats for their work.
- State officials and local officials eventually went on record saying requests from agencies would be released following the closure of the juvenile court case. They further expressed a firm belief that no wrongdoing would be found, and that everyone would see Gatlinburg’s first responders did the best they could.
- Records started getting released.
I’m not one for wild conspiracy theories. Accusations should be based in fact. There’s too many coincidences in this mix that lead me to an unshakeable belief Sevier County, and more specifically Gatlinburg, officials stumbled on something in their investigation of what happened they don’t want the public to know.
The confidentiality of the juvenile court case gave everyone the plausible excuse to remain silent when asked questions. It also gave the city commission time to prepare a way to silence anyone who wanted to ask questions about the fires. Once the information that would cause heads to roll was quietly brushed away, the elected officials gave the all-clear to release records from the fires.
After all, you’ve got nothing to fear when you hid from the public the stuff that could cost you an election. And Gatlinburg is a tourism-driven town. If there was a chance to cover up or hide information that compromised Gatlinburg’s tourism industry, this was an ideal time to do it.
What don’t Gatlinburg’s officials want us to know, and why?
People will look at the list of events above and dismiss them as coincidences. To that, I can only offer the same response Patricia Cornwell gave the Royal Society of Ripperologists when she presented her thesis Jack the Ripper was an artist named Walter Sickert:
“If it was one coincidence, that would be something. Two coincidences could just be two coincidences. When it’s coincidence after coincidence after coincidence, then you need to start considering whether it might be true.”