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Some fleeing scene of wildfires describe it as escaping 'gates of hell'

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (CNS) -- St. Mary Catholic Church was at ground zero in the wildfires that devastated parts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge Nov. 28, and while flames reached to within yards of the tourist city church, it appears to have been spared.
Some parishioners weren't as fortunate.
Its pastor, Carmelite Father Antony Punnackal, was forced to evacuate St. Mary's as intense fires came within 300 yards of the church that sits in the heart of Gatlinburg.
The church and rectory have been closed since then, but the priest has received reports that the buildings were spared from the blaze but sustained smoke damage and possible damage from high winds that fueled the flames.
The wildfires left a swath of destruction in and around the city of Gatlinburg, causing at least 13 deaths, more than 50 injuries and tens of millions of dollars in property damage. Dozens of residents and visitors to the tourist destination still are missing. Three people who suffered serious burns were transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
As of midday Dec. 2, the city of 5,000 residents still was closed down, with only emergency personnel allowed to enter as well as residents and property owners on a limited basis.
"I know of seven families in our parish that lost everything," Father Punnackal told The East Tennessee Catholic, the magazine of the Diocese of Knoxville. "Five of them lived in apartments that burned to the ground. They lost their housing and all their belongings. They're also jobless because the businesses where they worked burned."
Many evacuees reported fleeing through horrific infernos with intense flames licking at their vehicles as they fled down narrow mountain roads to safety. But a number of residents and tourists perished in the flames, and rescue workers still were trying to account for everyone.
Some members of Holy Cross Parish in Pigeon Forge also lost their homes, belongings and businesses. The fires burned nearly 16,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Father Punnackal was told he could re-enter Gatlinburg Dec. 2 to assess the church and rectory. But he could only stay for a few hours.
He said that as he monitored the spreading fires Nov. 28, smoke was entering the church and rectory to the point it became unsafe to breathe. Shortly thereafter, he was forced to evacuate with just an overnight bag as fire threatened the property.
Father Punnackal has been staying at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Newport while his parishioners were spread out in shelters and hotels or with family or friends.
"I'm now far away, and I can't get to my parishioners. I have tried to go back, but I've been unsuccessful," the priest said. "I greatly appreciate everyone offering help. I'm doing what I can, but we have a long way to go."
While a severe drought over several months prompted many of the recent eastern Tennessee woodland blazes, officials are investigating whether some of the wind-whipped fires above Gatlinburg were caused by individuals, either accidentally or intentionally.
The wildfires raced down the mountains, eviscerating everything in their path: homes, condominiums, chalets, cabins, apartments, businesses, automobiles.
As a stream of vehicles exited Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, shelters were set up to accommodate those displaced, which numbered as many as 2,000 at one point. Evacuees were receiving food, clothing and other help in shelters set up by the American Red Cross, said Father Andres Cano, pastor of Holy Cross.
"Many people are showing solidarity and generosity toward the people affected by the fires," he said, adding that "there is a longtime recovery ahead for the people and the local community."
Father Cano was assessing the impact of the wildfires on his parish. As of Dec. 1, the parish knew of one family that lost their home to fire, but more could be affected. He also said parishioners' employers in and around Gatlinburg were affected, and those parishioners are now out of work.
Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika has been working with volunteers from around the diocese to get assistance to the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge communities.
On Dec. 1, the bishop announced a $25,000 grant for fire victims through the Diocese of Knoxville's St. Mary's Legacy Foundation. The $25,000 grant is in addition to $735,000 that the St. Mary's Legacy Foundation will be distributing to charities and nonprofit groups throughout eastern Tennessee in 2017.
"What happened in the Gatlinburg area was unexpected, and each day we're hearing about more lives lost, more property destroyed, and more heartache for many, many people. The St. Mary's Legacy Foundation has a very precise way of evaluating grant distributions before they're announced. In this case, the foundation felt it was best to react to this tragedy immediately," Bishop Stika said.
  • Published in Nation
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