The iconic Ocoee Whitewater Center near Ducktown, Tennessee - host of the whitewater slalom event for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta - has burned to the ground.
Polk County EMA Director Steve Lofty said Tuesday in a telephone interview the fire had already engulfed about 90% of the structure by the time a full fire response got to the scene on the Ocoee River.
"It's a huge loss to the community here," Lofty said.
Lofty said fire crews were already in the area - about two miles away - putting out a tractor-trailer fire, when dispatchers first learned of the fire at 11:53 p.m. Monday.
U.S. Highway 64 was shut down while firefighters were fighting the truck fire when another driver reported spotting a fire at the Whitewater Center as the driver descended a nearby mountain road, he said.
"Initial crews that were down there responded to the Whitewater Center, and then we requested mutual aid from about 12 other departments," Lofty said.
There is no known connection between the two fires, he said.
The growing fire at the Whitewater Center was outpacing response, he said.
"Over half the structure was on fire before we ever got there," he said.
The open store area in the building was about to collapse when firefighters first started to arrive, he said.
"By the time we got enough resources there, the other part was on fire," he said. "We just didn't have enough water and enough resources to control it. It was so far along before we knew it was burning, there wasn't really any hope.
"When we started suppressing it, it was about 90% involved," he said.
The Ocoee Whitewater Center was built to host the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. For two days in 1996, the world's premier whitewater paddlers dazzled crowds that exceeded the total population of Polk County in the culmination of a years-long process that brought the Olympics to the remote hills of the Cherokee National Forest, the Chattanooga Times Free Press previously reported.
The International Olympic Committee announced the Ocoee River as the host site of the 1996 Olympic canoe/kayak slalom competition in December 1992, according to archives.
Polk County Executive Robby M. Hatcher said Tuesday in a telephone interview the loss is a blow to the rafting community and Polk County as a whole.
"The Whitewater Center was a sought-after destination for tourism in our county, and this'll be a big loss," Hatcher said.
He said he was still in high school during the Olympics and didn't get to attend the events in 1996. The building hasn't been occupied in about two years because of the pandemic.
"It was the centerpiece of the whitewater venue," Hatcher said, noting the loss will be a blow to the whitewater community. "It is my understanding that they were planning on opening the Whitewater Center this year. Now that will no longer be happening."
U.S. Forest Service officials said it's too soon to say whether the center will be rebuilt.
"We just don't know yet," spokesperson Ashley Miller said Tuesday in an email. "We are all really shocked and saddened."
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is investigating the cause of the fire, Miller said. No one is allowed on site until their investigation is complete, she said. That means the center and some associated trails are closed.
The closure list includes the Rhododendron Trail, Bear Paw Loop Trail, Old Copper Road Trail, 64 Connector Path and the Chestnut Mountain Loop/Bear Paw Connector Trail, according to the Forest Service.
The Ocoee Whitewater Center remained a vital part of the river community following the Olympics, she said.
"It is a key recreation site in the forest and hosts about 300,000 visitors a year," she said.
The loss weighs heavily on everyone connected with the center and the river, acting Cherokee National Forest Supervisor Mike Wright said Tuesday in a statement.
"First, we are just so grateful that no one was injured during the fire and thankful to our partners for their assistance in getting the fire under control and investigating the cause," Wright said. "The Ocoee Whitewater Center was a unique site not just here on the Cherokee National Forest, but across the Forest Service. It is a difficult loss for us."
The Ocoee region's whitewater businesses shouldn't see too much impact, according to Ocoee River Outfitters Association President Ryan Cooke.
He got the first word of the fire as a text message at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, he said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
"Personally, from my business and as president of the Outfitters Association, I'm shocked. It's heartbreaking," Cooke said. "The Outfitters Association is saddened and in disbelief of the fire at the Whitewater Center, but we're open for business. But it will not impact rafting operations on the Ocoee."
Cooke said the center and its property were the product of teamwork.
"A lot of local effort went into getting that whitewater center built in '94 and '95 before the Olympics came to town," he said.
While rafting companies don't use the center property, many of the people passing through who want to watch paddlers on the river could get close to the river safely on the center's grounds even though the building has been closed the past couple of years.
"We were able to raft without the Whitewater Center," he said. "I don't anticipate any struggles as far as rafting."
Cooke said the property was a place for spectators to watch paddlers.
"I think the Whitewater Center was a draw for people who didn't really raft," he said. "They would go up there and watch rafting and, lots of times, that was a draw as people would see rafters coming through and say, 'Hey, I want to do that.'"
Cooke said he hoped the bad news about the fire doesn't keep anyone away from the river and its outfitters.
"All the Ocoee outfitters will be open for business, and we'll be rafting this coming weekend," he said.
"The first release for the 2022 rafting season on the upper section of river will be May 7," Cooke said of the Ducktown end of the river.
After May 7, the releases on the upper Ocoee will be on Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 10, he said.
A look back
A Hixson, Tennessee, man now retired from the Forest Service worked on the original project along the banks of the Ocoee in the 1990s. Paul Wright was the project director working for the Forest Service who led the team that planned, designed and built the Whitewater Center from 1992 to 1996, he said.
"When we were working on the Olympics back in the '90s, the Forest Service had absolutely no interest in doing this in the beginning," Wright said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
But state officials were motivated and pressed their federal counterparts to get behind the idea to build it for Tennessee's Ocoee River community, Wright said.
"I think we did a pretty good job," he said of the final product. "As I like to tell anyone who'll listen, we built the Whitewater Center because of the Olympics, not for the Olympics," he said in a follow-up email. The investment was an "enduring economic stimulus for the people of the Ocoee Region ... where tourism associated with the river is the leading industry."
Wright said the Whitewater Center is composed of all the property, walkways, rocks, outdoor features and river additions that created the Olympic venue, and the administrative building was its centerpiece.
"The administration building that burned last night was the focal point of the $16 million Ocoee Whitewater Center, completed in July 1996," he said. "The administration building represents about 15% of the total capital investment at the site."
"We fought hard to get $2.4 million to build the thing," he said of the roughly 7,600-square-foot building at the center which incorporated extensive amounts of hardwood donated by a member of the Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Association.
The fire also claimed a number of Olympic artifacts, Wright said.
Wright now wonders about the burned building's future.
"It's a really tragic thing that happened. It was a wasteful thing," he said. "Going forward, what's going to happen? The Forest Service budget is grim, and I don't know if they can rebuild it."
Wright hopes for ideas from state and federal lawmakers.
Lofty said investigators will be probing the scene of the fire in the coming days but not because of suspected foul play.
"It's not that we're suspicious of arson but it was such a big fire we want to cover all bases," he said.
Firefighters used more than 100,000 gallons of water from tanker trucks to battle the fire along with water from a fire hydrant at the center.
Firefighters from Bradley County, Cleveland, Englewood, Etowah, Wolf Creek and East and West Polk County fire departments, Fannin County, Georgia, the Hiwassee Dam and the Culberson volunteer fire departments in Murphy, North Carolina, and others responded, Lofty said.
The Whitewater Center is administered by the Cherokee National Forest.