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This story has been corrected to show the students were evacuated from Blount County and not Sevier County.

Devastating Gatlinburg fires

More than 100 students, parents and teachers from Rhea County, Tenn., were among the thousands evacuated Monday night from areas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park threatened by wildfires as high winds fanned the flames and spread the blaze.

Officials said 89 students and 12 adults from Frazier Elementary School and Spring City Elementary School left on a three-day school field trip Monday to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in Blount County.

But as the strong storm system whipped ongoing brush fires into a frenzy near Gatlinburg, officials at the institute decided it was time to make a getaway.

"Just out of an abundance of caution they were evacuated to Maryville, where they were met by their buses from their home school district," Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont CEO Jennifer Jones said Tuesday.

"Everyone was in good spirits, and at no time did we see flames near Tremont. And I'm not aware of any fires that have been on our campus," Jones said. The institute and that part of the national park in Blount County had no visible fires overnight, she said.

The school has 11 staff members who live on site, she said, and on a normal business day about 30 people work at the institute.

"There were heavy winds and there were limbs down and debris," Jones said. "You could see the glow off in the distance, but there were no flames."

"For now, our institute is closed and we've got all our staff off site here in town," Jones said, adding she was grateful to national park and Rhea County school officials for their professionalism.

As buses headed for the mountains from Rhea County, Director of Schools Jerry Levengood was in a car leading them to the church in Maryville where the evacuees were waiting.

"Everything went beautifully," Levengood said. "The folks at Tremont did a tremendous job. They had a plan in place and they executed that plan to perfection."

Rhea County's field trip crew had a plan in place, too, accounting for the children with multiple head counts with help from faculty and parents who went on the trip, he said.

"The children were just marvelous and did a great job," Levengood said.

Parents particularly performed their parts well, he said. Levengood was concerned that parents who were worried about their children might try to make it to the church rather than wait in Rhea County for the buses to return. That might have added confusion to an already stressful situation.

"They really trusted us to take care of their children, and that means a lot," he said.

Levengood said he especially wanted to thank transportation superintendent Ronnie Holloway, who organized the evacuation transportation and also arranged for other drivers to take on the morning bus routes so no tired bus drivers were behind the wheel after a long overnight trip to the Smoky Mountains and back.

Meanwhile, somebody has to go back and get luggage — a lot of luggage, Levengood said.

"The kids just left with their backpacks and their sleeping bags and we'll have to make arrangements to get the luggage back," he said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

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