WATCH ABOVE: Family devastated after Ontario couple killed in Tennessee wildfires
A retired Woodstock couple has been identified as being among the 13 who have died in a major wildfire in the Smoky Mountain resort city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, officials said Friday.
John Tegler, 71, and Marilyn Tegler, 70, had been staying at their vacation home in the city to celebrate American Thanksgiving. Their son, Scott Tegler, is Woodstock’s Fire Chief.
The couple were dual citizens and had been living in the U.S. for around 20 years, said Dave LaPointe, the couple’s son-in-law, in an interview with Global News Friday in Woodstock.
LaPointe says they first received word of a positive identification in a phone call around 6 p.m. Thursday.
“The last contact we received was somewhere shortly after 8 p.m. Monday night,” LaPointe said. “A text that they were in the process of evacuating the house in Tennessee, and that was the last communication that we received until last night.”
“I think for the most part we’d come to the reality that we weren’t going to get good news,” LaPointe said, adding family hung onto hope that their loved ones were safe. “When I saw Scott come in the house last night it was just — no words can describe it.”
He added that Scott has spent his career saving people from fires and said it was incredibly difficult for him to be so far from his parents and unable to help them.
LaPointe says the couple moved to Georgia a little over 20 years ago for John’s work, and later retired there, keeping a vacation home in Tennessee. They had been together for nearly 50 years and were set to celebrate their anniversary, he said.
“Just, you know, very family oriented, nice people that would do anything for you and […] doted on their grandkids and their accomplishments,” he said. “Just two of the nicest people you would have ever met.”
“If anything good can come out of it, they were together and they were in a place they liked to be, if there’s a silver lining to it, I guess.”
LaPointe said the couple were on foot close to their vacation property when they were killed in the blaze.
“We don’t know why they abandoned the vehicle or if they couldn’t get through and were possibly trying to get back to the house to try to ride it out,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever know that answer.”
LaPointe said family members had travelled to Tennessee in an effort to bring their loved ones’ remains back to Ontario in the near future.
He says they leave behind three grandchildren.
During a morning news conference, officials raised the death toll of the fires to 13, and said they had identified six of the deceased.
They included Jon and Janet Summers, a Memphis couple who were separated from their three sons during the fires, May Vance, a woman who had been vacationing in the city and died of a heart attack after being exposed to smoke, and the Teglers.
The identity of the sixth is not being released pending notification of family.
During the conference, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters also increased the number of buildings damaged, saying it now approaches 1,000.
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On Friday, people in cars and trucks were given a first look at what remained of their homes and businesses. Local officials, bowing to pressure from frustrated property owners, said they would allow people back into most parts of the city Friday morning.
Residents have to pass through a checkpoint and must show some proof of ownership or residency, said Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle.
“The city is not implying that private property is safe,” she said. “People may encounter downed power lines or other hazards.”
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The trouble began Monday when a wildfire spread from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the Gatlinburg area. Hurricane-force winds toppled trees and power lines, blowing embers in all directions.
More than 14,000 residents and visitors in Gatlinburg were forced to evacuate, and the typically bustling tourist city has been shuttered ever since.
Officials in Gatlinburg, the centre of the devastation, hope to open the city’s main roads to the public by Wednesday, and authorities searching the remains of homes and businesses expected to be finished by Friday night.
Deputy Park Superintendent Jordan Clayton said the initial fire on an area called Chimney Tops, which is a double peaked ridge line about 4 miles away from Gatlinburg, was caused by a person or people. It’s near the end of a popular hiking trail and there were people on that trail on Nov. 23 when the fire started, as there are almost every day.
“Whether it was purposefully set or whether it was a careless act that was not intended to cause a fire, that we don’t know,” Clayton said. “The origin of the fire is under investigation.”
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are helping investigate the cause.
With files from Adam Miller of Global News, The Associated Press