GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — The wildfires that killed 14 people and tore through Gatlinburg also stole an iconic venue from this city at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains whose nickname is "the wedding capital of the South."
All that remains of Cupid's Chapel of Love is a heart-shaped pink sign with its name spelled out in Barbie-doll-style cursive lettering.
The white, log building with a green tin roof and waterfall around back hosted more than 20,000 weddings in more than two decades. Some were quick, 15-minute "let's get married this weekend" appointments. Others were full ceremonies, renewals of vows and weddings built on family traditions that began when parents and grandparents eloped there.
Alongside 20 friends and family members, Cheryl Petty Moats and her husband Jim got married there in 2014. The couple from Hurricane, West Virginia, always rent a cabin nearby in Pigeon Forge for their anniversary and take pictures where they were married.
Moats cried when she saw photos of the rubble. It's uncertain whether the chapel will ever be rebuilt.
"You could just feel that it was a special place. There was a lot of love there," she said. "We looked at several chapels down there to get married in, but there was just something about that one."
The fires that devastated Gatlinburg also took the life of the Rev. Ed Taylor, 85, who nearly four decades ago launched the wedding-destination industry that has expanded throughout the city and into neighboring towns, including Pigeon Forge. Hundreds of thousands of people each year now flock to the Smoky Mountains region to get married or attend a wedding.
A friend of Taylor, Adren Greene, said the reverend died in or just outside his home. Little Mountain Chapel, the brown building with the red door where he officiated thousands of weddings, survived the fires, Greene said.
Taylor arrived in town in 1979. Since then his organization, Gatlinburg Ministries Inc., has married more than 85,000 couples, with Taylor himself administrating more than 45,000 weddings, according to the group's website.
Taylor performed the wedding for Billy Ray Cyrus, country music star and father of Miley Cyrus, and country singer Patty Loveless. Country performer Tanya Tucker sang at the wedding of a band member. Taylor also performed the wedding of Jeff Cease, formerly in the Black Crowes rock band. Taylor had retired about a year ago.
"I've done it seven days a week," he said in a 2009 interview with The Associated Press. "We used to do 'marrythons' on Valentine's Day around the clock. We did as many as 60 in a 24-hour period."
Taylor opposed gay marriage, and last year, after vandals damaged a sign at his chapel that said "no-same sex marriages," he stood guard out front with a shotgun.
Cupid's Chapel of Love, which started up in 1994, was one of the few in this conservative town of multiple churches and fervent religious beliefs that did allow same-sex weddings, along with the traditional unions. Cupid's Chapel of Love and Chapel at the Park, another chapel across town that is under the same ownership, have administered about 130 same-sex ceremonies combined, said Lee Bennett, one of the chapels' owners.
One of the packages offered by Cupid's Chapel of Love before its demise included the $99 "Get Er Done:" a 15-minute appointment during which a couple presented a license, met the minister and exchanged vows in an abbreviated ceremony, Bennett said.
"It's usually people who, it's their second or third marriage, and usually the groom just wants to get married," said Bennett, whose group bought the chapel in 2008. "I'm sure if the bride had a say in it, she would've had the next package up that includes a few pictures."
Cupid's Chapel of Love has about 100 appointments scheduled into 2017, and those couples can reschedule at Chapel at the Park, Bennett said. That area, in additional to essentially all of downtown Gatlinburg, emerged unscathed from the fires, which damaged or destroyed more than 2,400 buildings. It could be six months before a decision is made about whether to rebuild the Chapel of Love, Bennett said.
The blaze also took out at least two churches and some church halls. The Roaring Fork Baptist Church, which had been planning to expand its worship center in Gatlinburg, crumbled in the blaze.
Standing amid that church's rubble, Senior Pastor Kim McCroskey vowed to stick with plans in the works before the fires to double the sanctuary's size. He's gathering what's left of the mountain stone facade to put on the front of the new building and said a relief team from the Tennessee Baptist Convention was on its way to help.
"We'll rebuild," he said. "We'll rise up out of these ashes."
Youth and Family Development leader receives one week suspension for misusing nearly $30,000 in nonprofit funds