The beauty of East Tennessee has become home to heartbreak after last week’s deadly wildfires; houses were leveled, livelihoods taken but perhaps no one has lost more in the fires than Jimmy Vance.
“If I’d only had a warning from the authorities to get the hell out we would’ve gone ,” says 75-year-old Jimmy Vance about the chaotic moments last week when fire was barreling toward his Gatlinburg home on Village Loop Road.
Jimmy and his wife May knew something was wrong when they saw flames rushing toward the backyard of their house.
“’We have to get the hell out of here,’ that's what I was thinking,” Jimmy recalls.
With fire closing in on either side, the Vance’s made their way down the mountain in a chaotic blur of choking dark smoke.
“I couldn't see the road at all, I couldn't see the front of my car,” he says.
And that's when this fire took what Jimmy loved most.
“And I looked over and she'd slumped over, I tried to talk to her and she didn't say nothing,” Jimmy says.
May Vance would take her last breath in a hospital bed, her heart stopped after inhaling smoke. She is one of 14 people now confirmed dead in the most devastating wildfire Tennessee has seen in the last 100 years.
“I was sitting by her side, holding her hand,” Jimmy said about his last moment with his wife.
“She was 75 and she passed away on my birthday,” he added.
Jimmy and May met in the 8th grade and had been together for 60 years. The couple spent most of their lives in Nashville but moved to Gatlinburg after Jimmy retired from his job as an attorney.
“We had no warning, no warning,” Jimmy said.
One week after losing his wife Jimmy still can't understand why they were never told to leave. In the days after the fire officials in Sevier County admitted that mobile text alert to evacuate were never sent out. The National Weather Service did sent emergency evacuations alerts to TV’s, radios and weather radios in Sevier County but records show that message wasn’t sent out until 9:07pm EST; a full one hour and seven minutes after the fire had already destroyed the Vance’s mountain home.
“When I saw the fire I knew it was time to get the hell out,” Jimmy recalls.
Only adding to the heartbreaking beauty that has become the Great Smoky Mountains
“All the memories of a lifetime are in that house and they're gone”