By Kathleen Christie (’91)
“This must be what the end of days will be like.”
From her vantage point in the Pi Beta Phi Elementary School library, with a wall of windows looking over downtown Gatlinburg and the surrounding national park, librarian Pat Gunn ( MS ’90, EdS ’98) saw nothing but gray darkness and a red glow. For the 507 students and 85 staff members with her, this unremarkable Monday was about to become anything but routine.
Within 18 hours of the start of that November 28, 2016, school day, the wildfire that began in the Chimney Tops area of the Great Smoky Mountains would destroy 2,460 businesses and homes in Gatlinburg and Sevier County, injure approximately 190, and take the lives of 14, including two of Pi Beta Phi’s own children.
With the children already sequestered to indoor play the prior week due to smoke levels throughout the resort town, Principal Carey Woods was keeping a watchful eye on the horizon that fateful day. “It was as if there was a vortex that morning pulling smoke into the building,” she said. It also was a little different from days past, as embers and ash started to be visible in the haze.
By 10:30 a.m., Woods knew it was time to leave. Cognizant that a significant number of her student population was living in poverty, including many who were homeless, Woods prioritized a quick lunch, and at 12:30 all children and staff were aboard buses bound for Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg to safely await parent pick-up.
Unbeknownst to those gathered over books and snacks around makeshift tables that afternoon, 131 students and seven staff members of this close-knit K–8 school were about to lose their homes and possessions. Most tragic of all, it was the last time they would see two of their beloved classmates, nine-year-old Lily Reed and her 12-year-old sister, Chloe, who would lose their lives later that evening.
But for these “mountain tough” people, too often overlooked and underestimated, this is not a story of tragedy. It is one of triumph, woven by love from strangers and neighbors, including those nearby at the University of Tennessee.
While the Pi Beta Phi building survived the blaze, smoke and wind damage was enough to force students to three locations until cleanup and repairs could be completed. The miraculously quick transformation of the old Pittman Center Elementary School, which served as a temporary facility for displaced kindergarten through fifth-grade students, was another indication of the remarkable outpouring of community support that was to come.
Without question, hesitation, or much sleep, a collection of district employees, teachers, and school staff, including guidance counselor Carrie Williams (MS ’07) and kindergarten teacher Sarah Dunn Cheek (BS ’05, MS ’07), scrubbed and prepared the small building, originally designed for only 200 students. “Seeing the superintendent [Jack Parton (EdS ’91)] work side by side with our custodial staff was amazing,” said Gunn. Their efforts meant school was once again open the week after evacuation.
HELPING THE HELPERS
Forty-five miles and a world away, the bounties of Knoxville’s Sequoyah Elementary School seemingly overflow. The coffers are full, improvement projects rarely linger, and contented bellies are a given. It’s a happy circumstance that Principal Julia Kirk (BS ’04, PhD ’12) appreciates, as it allows her to share the school’s blessings.
Sequoyah’s outreach committee decided that someone needed to care for the Gatlinburg teachers who were so busy caring for their students. Within days of the fires, staff members, including numerous UT alumni, and students, many of whom are the sons and daughters of UT employees and alumni, raised more than $1,000 in Walmart, Cracker Barrel, and Visa gift cards for each Pi Beta Phi staff member who lost their home. The giving hasn’t stopped. According to Kirk, Sequoyah is planning a welcome back party for the Pi Beta Phi students when they return to their school.
In a time filled with heroes, perhaps the most exciting moment for a select group of young Pi Beta Phi Vol fans was a special appearance by Coach Butch Jones and the UT football team. Giving the anxious children a little distraction and cheer, the players signed posters for their young fans. And when they later were informed that one student was devastated by an accidental spill that had destroyed his poster—treasured as his first possession after losing everything in the fire—the athletes were kind enough to send an autographed football to replace it.
Like her fellow student-athletes, UT cheerleader Kylee Dick felt an urge to help that was compounded by the upcoming holidays. The child and family studies major started a Go Fund Me page, spread the word through social media, and raised $2,000. The money was used to purchase toys, which she then individually wrapped. Dick said the day she delivered presents to the school was an amazing experience she will never forget.
The fires may have decimated the physical structures of this tight-knit community, but it has strengthened the bonds. “I have 131 stories,” said Woods, regarding every student who lost their home. Yet for every one of those stories, she has countless others of goodwill. In her temporary office, a stack of donations, letters, and cards leaves her struggling to put gratitude into words. A glance shows a school in Michigan that gave money, more than 700 books from Nashville students, and a sizeable donation from Knoxville Utilities Board line workers who gave every bit of their disaster overtime pay to the school. The crowded hallways are lined with cards and positive messages of hope, and the hugs are a little more frequent.
Perhaps there is a reason the most vulnerable also are the most resilient. The Pi Beta Phi staff knows that anxieties may be triggered by a return to the school where it all started, especially for the fourth and sixth graders who are moving on without a classmate. Whether it’s as simple as the disruption of routine or as traumatic as the loss of home and friends, each of these children has experienced more upheaval than their loving teachers would wish on anyone. “We’re currently touching base with every Pi Beta Phi School family who lost their home to ensure that they’re getting what they need,” said Woods.
“We are a family,” added Gunn.
As Woods stated in a letter to the public, “The Volunteers of Knoxville and the Volunteers across our state of Tennessee and nation are the truest examples of human compassion and unconditional love in the midst of the most terrible chaos that I have ever witnessed.”
The world is small when you’re young. For Pi Beta Phi Elementary, a safe, comfortable world disappeared that night. Comfort lies in knowing it has been replaced with an expanded world full of Volunteers.