GATLINBURG, Tenn. — The inferno looks like a scene from an apocalyptic movie.
But the blaze spreading across the Tennessee horizon is real, and Sevierville police officers are driving right toward it.
“Keep praying, man … pray,” one officer says.
Newly released dashcam video shows what police and firefighters endured while responding to the Gatlinburg wildfires. The November blazes killed 14 people and caused more than $500 million in damage in the popular tourist community.
Officials released the police footage Wednesday after arson charges were dropped against two juveniles suspected in the blazes.
While the flames quickly turned catastrophic, only now are we seeing the extent of the hellfire through the eyes of rescuers.
Speeding toward disaster
While hundreds of cars fled in the opposite direction, a pair of Sevierville police officers sped toward the inferno the night of November 28.
Sparkling Christmas lights turned into dull blurs of color as smoke covered the road.
“Damn, I can’t see,” one officer says.
A few minutes later, the officers make a turn and see a mountain near downtown Gatlinburg engulfed in flames, from its peak all the way to to the ground.
“Holy sh*t,” one officer says.
“That is the craziest thing I have ever seen,” another says.
As police head deeper into danger to try to find residents, the sky turns into an opaque mix of flames and smoke.
“I can’t believe all this is on fire,” an officer says. “The whole town is on fire. It’s like a ghost town.”
‘I’m just worried about getting you the hell out of here’
While speeding toward endangered residents, police encounter a man in need of help and get him into the car. One officer gasps for air after getting back in the vehicle.
Later, they tell the man he needs to get out.
“We’re just going to dump you off … here,” an officer tells her. “There’s a bus, and you can take it out to the community center.”
The man asks about Pigeon Forge, the popular tourist town and home of Dollywood.
“Man, I’m just worried about getting you the hell out of here,” one officer responds. “I really don’t care about … Pigeon Forge.”
“We’re trying to get everybody out of Gatlinburg right now,” the other officer says.
After the officers drop the man off at an evacuation bus, the officer head in to pitch darkness. For a long stretch, there are no more street lights.
A woman’s voice comes across the police radio: “Please be advised, all power is out,” she says. “We can’t even have anything power up.”
‘We will arrest you!’
As the smoke gets thicker and their breath gets shorter, the officers realize the danger they’re getting into.
“Anybody that’s staying like this should be arrested,” one officer says.
Then, a massive fireball shoots right up to the road.
When police reached a residential neighborhood, they had little time to get everyone out.
“This is the police! Mandatory evacuations! Please leave the property!” one officer shouted.
“Get your *** out of the house, now! Go!” another screamed. “We will arrest you. Come on, get in the car! The fire is over that bridge. Let’s go, come on!”
By the end of its deadly rampage, the wildfire damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings.
Roaring Fork Baptist Church was one of those destroyed. Seven months later, the congregation is still trying to rebuild.
“It’s progress — every nail that goes in, every shingle that goes on,” Pastor Kim McCroskey told CNN affiliate WATE on Monday.
But tourist sites such as Dollywood are back in full swing, spokesman Pete Owens said.
“The entire area is still affected by the misconception after the fires that the tourism industry was adversely impacted,” Owens said in an email Wednesday.
“Dollywood is not as adversely affected as some — this past holiday week, for example, was up about 8% over the same week last year but the combination of the hangover from the fire and an extremely wet year has impacted our attendance overall.”