‘It looked like Armageddon’: David and Debbie’s prayer-filled escape from the raging fires

By Bill Brewer
Photography by Stephanie Richer

David and Debbie Reed’s home in the Norton Creek area of Sevier County is hallowed ground. You don’t have to look much farther than the name the couple gave their property in 2003, “Bella Lisieux.”

But just how sacred “Beautiful (St. Thérèse of) Lisieux” is wasn’t apparent to Mr. Reed until the Nov. 28 firestorm that swept through parts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

A Jesus garden he created in the yard of the mountainside house that sat between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, along with a fountain statue of two kids playing that was placed in memory of two children the couple lost to miscarriages, are all that remain after wildfires reduced their home to ashes.

The Reeds and their two sons, parishioners at St. Mary in Gatlinburg, are lucky to be alive after escaping through flames and suffocating smoke that consumed their Smoky Mountain community.

To be more precise, David Reed says it was God answering their urgent prayers as they fled through the firestorm.

The Reeds’ gripping story of survival began earlier in the day on Nov. 28, when something just didn’t seem right to the couple. Sevier County had been suffering through a smoky haze in the air from area forest fires for weeks. But on this day, the smoke was heavier, and there was an eerie orange hue to the sky.

Still, they went about their day just as everyone did in the county. Mr. Reed was working from home, and Mrs. Reed was substitute teaching at Pittman Center School. But as the day wore on, smoke from the nearby fires intensified and their youngest son’s school, Pi Beta Phi in Gatlinburg, was evacuated. It was the only school in Sevier County to let out early. As evening approached, the Reeds gathered for dinner at the family table with sons Jevan, 14, and Giovanni, 9.

That is when the electricity went out. Losing power is not unusual, so the Reeds lit candles, finished dinner, and waited for the lights to come back on. To fill in the time, the family told ghost stories in an upstairs room.

Then terror was unleashed.

“It smelled like a campfire in our bedroom. I had noticed the trees swaying severely and glowing embers flying in the air. Then Jevan looked out a window and began screaming, ‘Fire, fire! We’re gonna die; we’re gonna die,’” Mr. Reed recalled. “Debbie then looked out and yelled, ‘Fire, fire!’”

Mr. Reed relived the harrowing scene, describing how flames were on all sides of the house, with the mountain engulfed in flames.

“We were surrounded by fire, and it was getting closer and closer,” he said. “I went outside and yelled, ‘Abba, Abba, help us!’”

Mr. Reed, who was hobbled by a broken ankle sustained before the fires, managed to run with his family to their SUV and head toward safety. But driving down the mountain proved treacherous. Burning trees that had fallen across the road blocked their path, but they were determined to get out safely.

Once they reached the Spur, the main divided highway through the mountains connecting Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, they encountered gridlock from hundreds of other vehicles trying to flee. Motorists with chainsaws cleared away trees that had fallen across roads so evacuees, including the Reeds, could make it safely out before the fires closed in.

“We could hear trees cracking and falling in the fire. Finally, the traffic began moving; we made it into Pigeon Forge. We called a neighbor, who also attends St. Mary. She works at the Hampton Inn in Pigeon Forge, and she took us in. Other neighbors told us the next day that less than 15 minutes after we fled our house, it was engulfed in flames,” Mr. Reed said. “We were literally just minutes away from disaster.”

“It looked like Armageddon,” Mrs. Reed added. “It looked like the apocalypse, like we were in end times.”

Their home, all belongings, and a second vehicle were consumed. Their neighbors tried to leave after the Reeds, but were blocked from getting down the mountain. They had to be rescued.

Mr. Reed said he and his wife were unable to discuss the tragedy until they went to Mass on Dec. 4 at Holy Cross Church in Pigeon Forge, celebrated by Bishop Richard F. Stika. Concelebrating the Mass were Cardinal Justin Rigali, Father David Boettner, rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral, Father Andres Cano, pastor of Holy Cross, and Father Antony Punnackal, CMI, pastor of St. Mary.

“There was such healing at that Mass. The bishop and Father Boettner showed such concern and offered comfort. And I always see Pope St. John Paul II through Cardinal Rigali. That Sunday was Day One of a new beginning. Before that, I couldn’t talk about it,” Mr. Reed said. “Our brothers and sisters who lost everything were great comfort.”

After Mass, Father Punnackal met with his parishioners to give updates on when the church planned to reopen after sustaining smoke damage and to receive updates on church members affected by the fires.

The Mass also served as a reunion of Holy Cross and St. Mary members, many of whom shared stories of their losses in the historic catastrophe.

The Reeds, who met 25 years ago when they both worked in the Dollywood marketing department, are thankful for all the support and donations that have been given to the fire victims. Mr. Reed singled out

Dolly Parton and her Dollywood Foundation for all the assistance they are providing. He also praised his employer, Fee Hedrick Family Entertainment Group in Pigeon Forge, which operates the Comedy Barn, Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud, Smoky Mountain Opry, Magic Beyond Belief, and the Smith Morning Variety Show. He said Fee Hedrick has been generous in its support of employees and others affected by the fires.

The Reeds hoped to be in more permanent, albeit temporary, housing by Christmas, and said they hope to be in their rebuilt home by Christmas 2017.

The property in the Norton Creek community they have lived on for 15 years is their sanctuary. It is where Mr. Reed said God wanted them to have a devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux and to create a Jesus garden. He said their lives have been enriched by that garden.

“The more I added on to that garden, the better my life was getting,” he said. “I sensed God telling us that not a hair on our head would be harmed. God claimed that property for us. Bella Lisieux will come back stronger than ever. That is our home.”

Emily Booker contributed to this story.

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