It’s a sight Vinnie Vineyard will never forget: Driving into Gatlinburg and watching the flames crawl down the surrounding mountainsides.
“It was like ‘Dante’s Peak,’” Vineyard told The Daily Times this week. “It was probably the first time in my life that I’ve really had to wrestle with a fear like that. I mean, I’ve been afraid of what might happen to a sick relative or something, but that’s the first time I ever felt fear of being in mortal danger.”
A professional wrestler, local bass player, amateur paranormal investigator and the owner of Funkmaster V’s Uptown Cabs of Renown, Vineyard was first alerted to wildfires that devastated parts of Gatlinburg and Sevier County on Monday evening. Vineyard credits his wrestling tag-team partner, Luke Walker, with spreading the word, Paul Revere-style, to a large part of the unsuspecting Gatlinburg population.
Banging on doors
“Luke got off work and saw the fire coming down the mountain, and he started banging on the doors of apartment buildings and bars, telling people to get the hell out of Gatlinburg,” Vineyard said. “He did a Facebook Live feed, and on that video, he turned the camera to where you saw the fire from the ridge where the Park Vista hotel was, and he said, ‘Oh my God, it’s coming down Ski Mountain.’ I thought he was being melodramatic, because we do a lot of comedy, but when he turned the camera, you could see the fire was on both sides and coming down toward town.”
Although the fire — which began on the Chimney Tops peak and was fueled by high winds ahead of a cold front that brought much-needed rain on Monday night — stopped short of engulfing all of the downtown area, several businesses, hotels and cabins in the area were destroyed. Throughout the day on Tuesday, conflicting reports were given about which structures were lost to the flames: The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency at first said that the ski resort Ober Gatlinburg was a total loss, but that information was quickly corrected.
Alamo steakhouse & Saloon burns
One of the properties that was indeed lost, however, was the Alamo Steakhouse & Saloon. Co-owner Jonathan Wimmer, whose father-in-law, Bruce Johnson, first opened the Alamo in 1999, watched on television Monday night as submitted videos and photos showed his family’s business, which employed 35 people, going up in flames.
“(Monday), we closed all of our restaurants in Gatlinburg around 1 or 2 p.m., mostly due to the air quality,” Wimmer told The Daily Times. “We were watching the news like everybody else throughout the night, and we received word that our sprinkler system was going off. We hoped that it might be just smoke getting into the building, but we had a sense of doom.”
Tuesday afternoon, the mandatory evacuation order for the Gatlinburg area was still in place; the only confirmation Wimmer had was of photos he’s seen on the news and social media.
“It looks like it’s a total loss,” he said. “There might be a couple of walls standing, but it’s caved in on itself. There’s a lot of memories in that building, so it’s hard. Our first priority, though, is making sure all of our people are accounted for, and so far I think we’re good. There are a few people who lost their homes and all of their possessions, and we’re working on taking care of them, and then we’ll begin the slow process of getting the Alamo back in that spot.”
As bad as the destruction was, it’s miraculous that it wasn’t worse, Vineyard said. After deciding to take his cab and offer rides to those stranded in the city, he made a harrowing drive down U.S. 321 that he’ll remember for the rest of his life, he added.
“It got so black that you couldn’t see headlights for all the smoke,” he said. “I had to get out of my van twice because there were flaming tree branches flying across the road and getting stuck up against it. And then when I got on the main drag and could see what was on fire, it was just surreal.
“As I was going around the city, checking on people’s property and taking people to the hospital and just recording what I saw, the thing that kind of blew my mind was just how fast it was spreading. I said (Monday) night that if there are two sticks left standing, we’d be lucky, so the fact that the downtown is still intact is a miracle to me. It’s a testament to all of the emergency workers.”
Driving back home after offering rides at no cost to those who needed one, he was again struck by the scope of the devastation.
“There were fires everywhere, structures collapsing,” he said. “Seeing Roaring Fork and all the hotels on the north side of (U.S.) 321 all in flames, it looked like a volcano erupting.”