KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee woman who checked in to a hotel as deadly wildfires raged nearby says in a lawsuit that she was terrified she would die in the hotel and is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the experience.
Holly Whitsell of Knox County contends employees of Park Vista hotel downplayed the risk of flames reaching the hotel when she checked in around 4 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2016, and didn’t tell guests about a voluntary evacuation. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Knoxville against Park Vista in Gatlinburg and Hilton Worldwide, which has a franchise agreement with the hotel, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported Wednesday.
The newspaper said Park Vista couldn’t be reached immediately.
The fires claimed 14 lives and destroyed more than 2,500 businesses and homes around the Gatlinburg tourism region.
When Whitsell entered the lobby, she saw smoke hanging in the air and asked the desk clerk if it was safe to check in, the lawsuit said.
“The desk clerk assured Ms. Whitsell that there was no threat and that the ‘fire was 15 miles away’ and if needed the hotel would give guests ‘plenty of time to get out’ if the fire got closer,” the suit said.
It said the clerk was wearing a face mask and gave one to Whitsell at check-in, along with the cookie customarily given to guests.
Whitsell chose to stay. The lawsuit said the cookie was the only food Whitsell had at the hotel because soon after, smoke and fire caused the restaurants to close. She is a diabetic and needs to eat regularly to maintain blood-sugar levels, the suit said.
About an hour after checking in, Whitsell and at least 40 other guests were unable to leave because the road leading to the hotel was blocked by fallen trees, the suit said. Firefighters wouldn’t allow anyone to leave because of high winds and dangerous levels of smoke and embers, it said.
It was 2:30 a.m. when firefighters and first responders began rescuing guests, including Whitsell, from the hotel, according to the filing.
After going to her room upon check-in, Whitsell went to the lobby where other guests had gathered, the lawsuit said. But the lobby filled with smoke, and Whitsell eventually returned to her room, the lawsuit said.
“Ms. Whitsell stayed in her room crying and terrified that she would die there in the hotel,” the lawsuit said. “Ms. Whitsell was afraid that if she went to sleep that she would die from smoke inhalation (and) also feared that she would be trapped in the hotel and die engulfed in flames.”
The lawsuit alleges Whitsell was so traumatized she couldn’t eat or sleep and eventually sought help from a therapist for PTSD. It doesn’t list how much in damages she is seeking.