GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Greg Bennett had no idea what might be waiting for him when he went to check on his church on Friday morning, four days after a deadly wildfire ripped through parts of downtown.
Friday was the first day residents and property owners were allowed back into the city limits to survey damage from the fires. Bennett, the pastor of Gatlinburg Presbyterian Church, had thought about what he might find.
“I had some indication it was fine, but I wasn’t sure what fine meant,” Bennett said. “When these things happen, you never know what you’re going to find.”
The ride into downtown showed no clear path of destruction, with some buildings demolished next to others still standing. Authorities said nearly 1,000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in the blaze.
A restaurant lay in a pile of rubble. All that remained was the entrance sign. A main strip of shops was left mostly intact, though largely deserted.
Bennett’s church, next door to the Gatlinburg Fire Department, stood undamaged, except for a smoky smell that lingered in the air and some ash that had blown in under the door.
Other buildings nearby were not so fortunate.
A wedding chapel just two buildings over showed signs of widespread damage, with the side of the building torn away and ceiling fans lying broken on the ground.
Less than a quarter-mile up the road, the Gatlinburg Church of Christ was a pile of cement and metal, with charred trees overlooking the ruins and a burned-out vehicle in the parking lot.
Several visitors and members of the congregation clustered around the former church, many wiping tears or shooting photos to document the damage.
Joann Tant, 80, who lost her home, hugged a friend before looking out silently on the church’s collapsed shell. Tant’s husband, James, designed the A-frame building in the 1960s, she said.
“It’s amazing,” Tant said. “This was a landmark. People have been telling my daughter it’s the most beautiful church they’ve seen.”
Like more than 14,000 others in Gatlinburg, Tant fled her home on Monday night as flames whipped by high-speed winds roared toward the city. She shared the home with her daughter and two grandchildren. On Monday night, her daughter went to check on the family’s cats and returned with a dire request.
“She came back and said, ‘We have to get out now,’” Tant recalled.
Looking at the church Friday morning, she said her home was in a similar state.
“Everything is gone,” Tant said.
David Barton, another member at the Church of Christ site Friday, called the scene “heartbreaking” but said the congregation plans to rebuild.
“We’ve gotten together to try and figure out what we can do,” he said. “We’re looking for some place to lease, and hopefully we’ll be worshiping in Gatlinburg again in two weeks.”
Tant said she still has the original design plans her husband drew and she hopes they can be used to restore the building to its original specifications.
“Right now things are very solemn,” said Tant’s daughter, Lara. “But everybody is banding together. We’re a strong community, and we’re going to rebuild.”
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