Couple shares story of being trapped in traffic with wildfire raging around them

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SMITHVILLE, Tenn. — A couple in Smithville is safe at home after fearing for their safety during the Gatlinburg wildfires.

They say they were part of a traffic jam Monday night with the fires raging around them.

“I’m glad to be home in Smithville,” said June Jennings, sitting in a room decorated for Christmas.

The holiday season so important to June and husband, Richard Jennings, it’s been a long tradition for the couple to spend a little time in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge this time of year.

“It is a special place,” June Jennings said. “It’s so special walking through Gatlinburg.”

“You just retreat into the country life like it’s 50 or 60 years ago,” Richard Jennings added.

Monday night, while staying at their Westgate resort time share, the Jennings said a staff member came beating on the door. Smoke was overwhelming. Something was wrong.

“Your eyes were filled with dust and stuff from the wind,” said Richard Jennings, remembering the evacuation from the resort. “You could see the fire coming down the other side of the mountain. We ran into bumper to bumper traffic. We just stopped in the road. The embers, the fire was burning terrible.”

“Nobody was moving,” June Jennings continued. “Everybody was getting out of cars and screaming. He called our daughter.”

“I told her we were in the middle of a forest fire, and I wasn’t sure we were going to get out of it alive,” Richard Jennings said. “I wasn’t going to sit in that car and be burned alive.”

“We thought about getting out of the car if we weren’t going to move and getting in the creek,” June Jennings said. “Finally, we started to move. There was a middle-aged lady, her daughter who was pregnant and a little boy, probably about 5 years old, running down the hill. The fire was at the bumper of their car, so they got out to run. I rolled down the window and said, ‘Do you guys need a ride? Get in!'”

Safe and at home, Richard and June Jennings said their thoughts are with the people of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

“It’s so sad because so many enjoy the mountains and so much of its destroyed,” June Jennings said.

She said someday they’ll spend Christmas there again.

“We’ll go back,” June Jennings continued. “They’ll rebuild. Tennesseans are resilient. Tennesseans are tough. I’ll continue to pray for them.”