Wildfire survivors continue to seek closure after state drops charges against juveniles

GATLINBURG (WATE) – Wildfire survivors have mixed reactions to the announcement to drop state charges against two juveniles in the wildfires last November.

James Wood lost his mother Alice Hagler in the fire. Hagler was the first victim to be identified. She lived in Chalet Village with her son. Wood was out of town when he heard about the charges being dropped. but says he wants everyone to stop pointing fingers.

“I was there that night. I have heard a lot of accusations; people have said things about the city and what was done. I don’t believe any of that. I was there, I made it a mile and a half up the mountain, I saw what was going on. The fires themselves were out of control. They were swirling, the winds were swirling. I don’t know if we will ever know for sure exactly where the fire came from, how it got there, or anything else,” said Wood.

He said he agreed with the assessment that most of the damage was caused by wind and downed power lines.

“I do know at Chalet Village where my mother passed away, there were power lines that were down everywhere and every spark started fires. That’s what I continue to believe and I will believe it until someone proves it otherwise,” he said.

Genie Brabham lost everything in the wildfires, including her two cats.

“I was hoping they would be held accountable, that they would do something, whether it be probation, anything,” said Brabham. “They can’t just get away with this.”

Previous story: Charges dropped against juveniles in Gatlinburg wildfires

Kevin McGuire also lost his home, but says he is glad one question has been answered though he has many more.

“We can now move forward without any gag order, or any perceived gag order, or rule 19 or whatever it is called,” said McGuire. “Hopefully we can all get to a place where we can heal and I think the truth will help us do that.”

Brabham says she wants answers too.

“There is no closure until I get answers from the city the county and the park,” said Brabham. The park was number one should have put the fire out. They didn’t do it so it fell on the city of Gatlinburg and Sevier County to take charge and protect us and they failed miserably by not evacuating us.”

Now, they are waiting for city leaders to give them the answers they’ve been wanting since the fires caused them to evacuate seven months ago.

“Oh it raises questions for me, absolutely,” said McGuire. “One question leads to another and I believe the timeline is very important here and hopefully if we can find the timeline without anything being held from us we can proceed.”

Darlene Verito, at what used to be her home in Gatlinburg off Wiley Oakley Drive, said the last seven months have been a nightmare and that wave of emotions happened again on Friday, learning that charges were dropped against the two juveniles believed to have started the wildfires.

“To be honest with you the first one was relief, relief for those boys and their families because, I didn’t feel from day one they should’ve been charged,” said Verito.

She says there was a sense of happiness because wildfire survivors learned a bit more about what happened that night in November.

“And the last one I was just sad because as a community that’s been through so much, and for some of us that’s lost everything we still have no answers.”

The news came as a shock to Verito, but she says that she’s not angry.

“Should they be held responsible for what they started in the park, if they started it? Yeah. They’ve done their seven months, give them maybe a little bit of probation or bring them back to the park and say ‘Look this is what that can do,’” added Verito.

Nearly seven months to the day, Verito has a message for the two boys. “Look at what happened. I’m not saying you did it because I wasn’t there. If you did, know the destruction and how you can tear apart someone’s family because my relationship is suffering, my kids are suffering, we’ve lost friends. So see what can happen and do me a favor and make something of your life. Go to college, go to school become someone.”

Wood said he forgives the two teenagers and says he hopes they learned something.

“Regardless of the people that passed away in chalet village and in Gatlinburg. I would just want them to take the time to realize what they did. And I would want to give them a hug and let them know that it’s going to be okay and let them know that it’s not the end. It’s definitely something that needs to be looked at and thought about. We’ve all been there and we’ve all made mistakes. I was a kid once too. I made mistakes when I was a teenager.”

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