One year later: Man who lost home, helped residents escape looks - WSMV News 4

One year later: Man who lost home, helped residents escape looks back at Gatlinburg wildfires

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GATLINBURG, TN (WSMV) -

Nearly a year has passed since the deadly wildfires in East Tennessee. The flames ravaged parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg. Thousands were forced to flee their homes. Fourteen people were killed.

Now, the main strip of Gatlinburg remains bustling with tourists while many residents are still trying to rebuild their homes.

"Christmas here, it gives you the merriness," smiled Alex Abrahams, driving through Gatlinburg. "You get it here in the mountains."

The downtown Gatlinburg strip is all red and green, decorated for Christmas between the usual life-sized Hulk figure, onions sizzling on grills and groups cheerfully playing holiday music on the street.

"I call it a family-oriented Vegas," Abrahams laughed.

He loves all of this about his home, but seeing the decorations return this year is somewhat bittersweet.

"You know it happened," he said. "You just want to move on from that, but the scars are there. I don't like to talk about it too much. It brings back a lot of emotions."

A year ago, Abrahams operated the Roaring Fork Motel Cottages, a place for low-income residents. He and wife, Victoria, lived in an owner's suite there.

"We lost about 27 units," he said, walking along an open lot where one building once stood.

The place was part of his dream to help the community. On Nov. 28, 2016, Abrahams saw an orange sky over the building and knew he had to get everyone out.

"I start knocking on doors," he remembered. "'We gotta go! We gotta go!' They said, 'Oh, we'll be fine.' Not on my watch. We gotta go. It came to a point, I couldn't see 10 feet anymore. That fire, it did a dance around the mountains ridge to ridge, mountain to mountain. You just saw these embers, like people were shooting arrows at each other and wherever it landed, it started a fire. It was like a snake, fire just going across the main highway."

In the panic to leave, Abrahams left everything including the only possessions that mattered, he and Victoria's rings.

"She said, 'If you can't get nothing, get the rings,'" he said. "We searched for three days after the fire."

A full year has made a tremendous difference on Roaring Fork Road where the motel was located. The Roaring Fork Baptist Church is nearing completion while other buildings under construction dot the drive. The Roaring Fork Motel Cottages are scheduled to reopen under new ownership in the spring.

Abrahams said it's too hard to return to the same place.

"I don't think we even had the chance to heal," he said.

His ABR Investments acquired a different three acres in Gatlinburg to build new affordable housing. He said, like so many here, there are things that keep him going, small things and small finds.

"The rings, they came together," said Abrahams, holding up he and his wife's two wedding rings, fused together by the heat. He eventually found them in the ashes. "They found each other, and they went through that fiery night together. It brought hope, renewed hope. No matter what we go through, fire or storms or winds or whatever, we can make it. If you can just keep the faith and know there's a brighter day ahead, as long as you have breath in your body, anything is possible."

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