Man races, goes on radio to warn neighbors during Gatlinburg wildfires

GATLINBURG (WATE) – Nearly six months after the Gatlinburg wildfires, more stories continue to surface of everyday people doing extraordinary things to help people.

One of those was Erik Cooper, a homeowner on Ski Mountain. He said he thought he was going to die that night, but he survived to tell his story.

“Everything around you was on fire. On the left all these woods and trees and underbrush burning. To the right, everything across the road was on fire. We were literally driving into the pit of hell,” said Cooper as he described driving off the mountain.

Like so many, Cooper will never forget the night of November 28 and escaping the flames around him. When Cooper learned Ski Mountain was on fire, his first inclination was not to drive down to safety, but to drive up to alert others who may not have realized how close the fire really was.

“I banged on the door here and blew the horn. I got as many people’s attention as possible by screaming and yelling and acting like a fool,” he said, retracing his steps from that night.

Cooper went from Upper Alpine Way up to Ski View Drive where he knew condos would be full and many did not have the vantage point to see the rapidly changing conditions.

“The way these condos sit, they are below the tree line,” he explained.

Downed trees and power lines forced him to turn around, but all the way he kept trying to warn others. By the time Cooper made his way down several winding roads and hit the parkway, he said there was a caravan of about 40 cars behind him. He and many of those drivers dodged downed trees and power lines, making it all the way to Cosby, but Cooper says he just couldn’t stop there.

“I raced back [to the radio station.] The parking lot was empty. I got to the side door and was kicking it in and Jay (Adams) answered the door,” he said.

From Cosby, Cooper drove to Mix 105.5 in Kodak, arriving a little after 8 p.m. getting here a little after 8 o’clock that night. Morning show host Jay Adams had just come back in trying to get more warnings to listeners.

“Throughout the day we had reported on the wind advisory and that the kids had been moved from Pi Bet Phi,” said Adams.

Adams says official information was hard to come by and then Cooper showed up with his first hand account.

“He started describing what he had seen. It was clear he was someone who had been through a very traumatic instance in the last few minutes,” said Adams.

A few minutes later, Adams gave Cooper a microphone.

“I think what I said was something in the effect is Ski Mountain is on fire, Gatlinburg is on fire, escape now,” remembered Cooper.

The two relayed as much information as they could, staying on the air until power was lost at the transmitter site sometime after 9 p.m. While they probably helped save lives, they insist they are not the real heroes.

“The guys on the front lines are the ones that are the heroes. I’m just happy that Erik was able to get out and that we could get some information for people to hear,” said Adams.

Ironically, Cooper has a background in risk management and insurance. He said he got out of the business after working on the Oklahoma city bombing and 9/11.  He did say these fires have brought back feelings of PTSD and that because of what he witnessed that night, he is back in counseling.

Cooper’s two houses in Gatlinburg survived that night.

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