KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - For nearly eight months, crucial information about the response and aftermath of the Gatlinburg wildfire lay hidden behind a judge's gag order but in chilling new 911 calls and recently released state documents, the true scope of the tragedy has come into clearer focus.
On Wednesday, officials with the city of Gatlinburg released a number of 911 calls made in the frantic moments of November 28, 2016. In them one caller can be heard pleading with a dispatcher "Please help us. We can't see the road or anything. Oh my God ... We're trying to make our way down but I think we're going to burn up," one woman can be heard saying, her voice trembling.
Documents released by the Tennessee Forestry Division also reveal issues that officials have identified in the months following the deadly wildfire which killed 14 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.
In a document labeled "After Action Review," officials wrote that their needed to be a "clearer chain and structure of command." Officials also said that they were dealing with too many fires with multiple different names, which made it difficult and confusing for first responders on the ground.
The document goes on to say that during the Gatlinburg wildfires, "Leadership was uncertain at times. When there was a mix of local and nonlocal crews, leadership was nonexistent due to no one wanting to take charge or individuals feeling inexperienced."
But the biggest, most pressing question still haunting survivors and victims is surrounds the constant criticism from residents that no warnings were ever sent out to evacuate.
Those who did get evacuation orders say they only received those messages hours after their homes had burned to the ground and they were forced to flea for their lives in a hellish glow of orange fury that consumed most of Tennessee's most iconic mountain town.
State Forestry Division officials told reporters on Wednesday that evacuations were not under their jurisdiction. In documents released by the department though one officials voiced this concern under a section labeled 'Evacuations,' "Don't wait too long - there seemed to be a hesitancy to call for assistance. It's OK to ask for help," the document read.
"I wish we could have done more. Absolutely, wish we could've done more. I wish we could've cut the fatalities in half, I wish we could've limited the loss of structures to something much fewer than 2,400. But I think for the size of our agency, for our responsibility, for the mission we have, our efforts there were a success," said Jere Jeter with the State Forestry Division.
This all comes as more critical documents surrounding the wildfire are expected to be released from Sevier County officials.