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Lucky to be alive: Gatlinburg men relive harrowing escape down fiery mountain

Lucky to be alive: Gatlinburg men relive harrowing escape down fiery mountain

GATLINBURG — It started with an ember. 

One single ember, falling from the sky into Michael Luciano’s front yard in Chalet Village in Gatlinburg. 

The Chimney Tops 2 Fire had been burning the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the past several days, pumping smoke into the air and casting an orange glow to the sky. Smoky air was the new normal, but on this particular day — Monday, Nov. 28 — the smoke was a bit thicker, the orange glow of the nearby fire a bit brighter. And then, the ember. 

“I turned my camera off on my phone. I went in and got my stepbrother. I said, ‘We need to get on the ATVs and we need to check out the area,” said Luciano, 37. 

They hadn’t driven but a few hundred yards when they found the fire, burning hot and approaching the cabin across the road from his house. Luciano was shocked. There’d been no warning, he said. No warning at all. 

“The news was on all the time. TV was still on. Power was still on up until the time we evacuated,” he said. “The power went out while we were loading the truck up. There was no warning at all. None.”

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Not even on the ham radio that Luciano and his stepbrother and roommate Anthony Fulton, 30, keep for just such an emergency. 

They spent only 90 seconds inside the house, rushing to gather a few emergency items, some personal effects such as the ashes of Luciano’s deceased father, and the Doberman, Red. Then, they were off, hurtling down Ski Hill Road. Fulton drove, and Luciano filmed. The video, which has amassed countless views after being published on news outlets worldwide, shows lines of flame burning on the periphery of frame as the truck speeds downhill. 

Then, they reach an impasse. A downed telephone pole blocked the road, and they’re forced to turn around in search of an alternate route. 

“That ended up being where hell started,” Luciano said. “It did not end until we got to the very bottom.”

It was hot inside the truck, maybe 110 degrees with the AC on. Smoke was thick all around, driving visibility to almost nothing as Fulton strove to keep the speed up. All around, cabins were going up in flame, the busted-out window frames filled with flickering orange. Propane tanks burst with regularity, sending out waves of heat that the two men could feel inside the truck. 

“They were blowing up left and right. It was total devastation,” Luciano said. “The further you went down the worse it got.”

Luciano narrates the video with panicked disbelief. There was no warning, he says. Every single cabin is on fire. No warning at all. Every single cabin. 

“Trees, telephones down,” Fulton said. “Telephone poles have like 300 pounds of tension on either side, but once that burns it’s just falling over.”

What if they encountered another telephone pole, Luciano wondered. What if Wylie Oakley Road was blocked off, too? Were they about to die? 

Then, they came to the tree. A huge, bowled-over tree, the trunk covering the right side of the road and the thinner top part covering the left. 

“When I saw that big tree, I thought seriously, this is it,” Luciano said. “We might not make it out.”

It was certainly possible — on the way down they passed a body, likely someone who’d succumbed to smoke inhalation while fleeing.

Fulton backed up and rammed the truck forward, somehow making it over the branches and back onto the road. But it wasn’t long before they encountered another obstacle — a stopped car, blocking the road. On the video, Luciano screams and curses. If the car doesn’t move, they’re done. 

“I’m cursing, screaming. I’m banging on his window,” Luciano said. “The man cracks his window and it’s an old guy. He goes, ‘I can’t see.’ I said, ‘Just pull over a little bit. If you can’t see you can follow our taillights down.’”

It worked. The man got in line behind them. At exactly 9:11 p.m., they made it to the bottom, where flashing police cars blocked anyone from going back up the mountain. There was a man at the bottom, a resident of Chalet Village, who waved Luciano and Fulton down to say that his wife and daughters were still up there. Would the brothers please, please, take him up to get them.  

Those cabins had burned, Luciano said. They’d all die if they went back up there. 

“The look on his face was just pure loss,” Luciano said. “Once we got down I was no longer thinking about death. I was thinking, ‘Thank God we made it.’ But to see that man have to worry about his wife and two daughters — the look in his eyes was just devastating. Just terrible.”

But they had to press on, continuing on gridlocked U.S. 321 toward Pigeon Forge. They sat there for about 15 minutes, not moving, watching fire loom on both sides of the road. If felt like a lot longer than 15 minutes.  

“Then we got into Pigeon Forge and it was just complete calm,” Luciano said. “It was like nothing happened.”

They stopped at Walgreens to get some toiletries. Luciano called his mother. 

“She was teared up,” Luciano said. “She said she prayed for God to put a blanket over the house and over the vehicle. A wet blanket.”

Perhaps that’s what happened. The truck and its inhabitants made it out safely, and the house survived the fire. Luciano has been relentlessy busy in the days since. His video footage propelled him to unsought notoriety. His phone never stops buzzing. He’s been interviewed for countless articles and broadcasts and ignored requests for countless more.  

Dinner at the Pigeon Forge Texas Roadhouse Friday, Dec. 2, provided his first opportunity to relax since the fire came. And it was a celebration, because he’d finally verified that his house had survived. Dinner would be on him, he told the group gathered around the table.  

“I’ve worked many wildfires with the Forest Service, and a man can defend his home with a garden hose on a standard creeping wildfire, but when you have wind it’s all over,” said Luciano’s friend Jason Liberadzki, who is a volunteer firefighter and manages water operations for the neighborhood as an independent contractor. “It was like no wildfire I’ve ever been part of.”

He was the first one on the scene after the fire roared through Monday night, Liberadzki said, checking on the damage to water infrastructure. It looked “like a war. Like a bomb went off. There were fires everywhere, still smoldering.” He remembers the first lost pet he found in the remains, a cat with burned fur that meowed like a crying child. Getting the creature to animal control for eventual reunion with his family was a small victory amid the chaos. 

The shock has begun to subside, at least slightly, for Fulton and Luciano. “I’ve calmed down a little bit,” as Luciano puts it. To realize that he has life when he so easily could have lost it that night — it’s humbling. 

“There’s not one cabin in my video except where the fires hadn’t reached yet that was not on fire,” Luciano said. “It was just the worst thing that could have happened to this town, but it will rebuild. The trees will come back. Everything will be OK. I’m just lucky to be out of there with my life.”

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