Tennessee wildfire: Father prays for a miracle in desperate search for family
Huddled in an evacuation shelter, his eyes bloodshot and teary, Michael Reed hung what little hope he had left on divine intervention.
Reed feared it would take nothing less to return his family after fast-moving fires Monday evening (Tuesday afternoon NZT) tore through his neighbourhood just outside the mountainous resort town of Gatlinburg, Tennesse, separating the heartbroken father from those he cares about most.
A torturous night had passed and still, Reed told ABC affiliate WATE, there was no sign of his wife, Constance, or the couple's two daughters - 9-year-old Lily and 12-year-old Chloe.
Reed told the station that he was "just hoping for a miracle."
Reed said he had last spoken to his wife at 8.15pm on Monday (local time) and she told him she could see flames across the street from the family's home and she didn't know what to do.
"I told her to call 911 and get out, and that was the last time I talked to her," Reed told WATE.
Monday's deadly wildfire engulfed two tourist towns near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with much of the surrounding timberlands, destroying more than 150 homes and businesses, displacing thousands of residents and visitors, and shutting down one of the nation's most popular natural attractions.
The fire killed at least three people and left at least 14 others injured, officials said on Wednesday (NZT), adding that search and rescue efforts were underway throughout Sevier County.
The "unprecedented" fire - which started on Chimney Tops mountain, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Smokies - was still burning Tuesday afternoon, emergency officials said.
Strong winds and dry ground had carried the flames into the quaint resort cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, moving too fast and too far to contain.
The blaze forced more than 14,000 people to flee the area and left "in excess of 150 buildings" in ruin, officials said. Some areas remained unreachable as dusk arrived in the smoke-choked mountains.
Reed said he was separated from his wife and daughters after he and his son - 15-year-old Nicholas - drove away from their home to see if the fire was approaching.
By the time they tried to turn around, it was too late - the pair were stuck in traffic and later blocked by authorities.
"When we finally made our way back into Gatlinburg to try to get to her, all of Wiley Oakley was gone," said Reed, referring to his street.
"It was completely on fire."
He told WATE that his home was engulfed in flames, but he believes he saw signs that his family had escaped.
Reed told the Knoxville News Sentinel that he and his son were eventually evacuated to LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge.
"We were told that they would be busing people here, and I have been here since last night waiting," he told the paper.
Reed said he spent the day trying to track down his wife at other shelters in the area, but without luck.
In the chaos surrounding Gatlinburg on Tuesday, information was contradictory, people were hard to track and organisation hard to come by, he said.
"I still haven't been able to talk with a Gatlinburg officer because the lines are completely shut down, and I still can't get hold of anybody at Rocky Top," Reed told the paper.
"You would think that somebody could go to the sports complex and scream their names, just to see if they are there."
- The Washington Post