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Firefighter rescued neighbors while his house burned to the ground

GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- While Pete Thompson grew up in the West End of Henrico County, he now calls Gatlinburg, Tennessee home.

"It's the views," he said about his love for the Smoky Mountain town where he moved with his wife Yalonda and later raised two daughters. "I mean, to have this as your backyard, that's a blessing in itself."

Pete not only lives in Gatlinburg, but he also serves there as a firefighter and a Sevier County EMS worker.

It is a way of life Pete discovered while growing up in the West End. After school at Longan Elementary, Pete would stop by Fire Station 12 on West End Drive.

Henrico Fire Station 12 on West End Drive.

Henrico Fire Station 12 on West End Drive.

There he would chat with and learn from his firefighting heroes. Guys with nicknames like Mongo and Cricket.

"I wouldn't even stop at home first, I'd stop at the fire station. That's where I'd hang out," Pete recalled. "I'd hang out there hours on end."

Pete grew up and attended Tucker High School.

From there, he moved to New York and married Yalonda. In 2008, he moved his family to Gatlinburg. A town where, as a child, Pete's family would drive from Richmond to go on vacation.

On November 28, 2016, both Pete's life and the town of Gatlinburg changed -- forever.

"We had had busy day already," Pete, who was working on Sevier County ambulance number nine that day, recalled.

That day a massive firestorm - fueled by drought and strong winds - jumped from Great Smoky Mountain National Park to Gatlinburg. It sparked a series of fires that would ultimately destroy 2,400 homes and buildings, and claim more than a dozen lives.

"It looked like hell on earth," Pete said.

Man recorded video while evacuating Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Man recorded video while evacuating Gatlinburg, Tenn.

As people evacuated town to escape the smoke and wildfire, Pete drove in his ambulance into town to help rescue neighbors in need.

One of those calls took him right by his home. The home his wife and daughter fled from earlier that day.

"As I rounded the turn down there, I kind of looked at my partner, he looked at me, and said 'what do you think?' I said, 'I don`t think it's there.'"

Pete's feeling was soon confirmed.

"I could see the smoke, the flame, the outline [of the home]," Pete remembered.

His thoughts immediately turned to his wife and daughters.

"How am I going to tell her? How am I going to tell the kids? How are the kids going to take it?," he asked himself.

While in his neighborhood, Pete said he put out a fire burning a neighbor's bush. That neighbor's home survived the wildfires intact.

Pete Thompson's home of eight years did not.

the-thompson-family-home

With his home on fire, Pete called his wife.

"Until his partner got on the phone, I just truly, truly didn't believe it," Yalonda Thompson said. "Then, I admit, I absolutely just lost it because my whole world, everything, was gone."

When Yalonda and her daughters evacuated earlier in the day to nearby Pigeon Forge, the scope of the wildfire was not yet know.

All they took with them from their home was one extra pair of clothes.

"Pictures and posters and I don`t know, just really, really good memories. It's hard to think that all of that is gone," she said standing in the shell of her home.

Pete and Yalonda Thompson inside what was once their home.

Pete and Yalonda Thompson inside what was once their home.

More than two months after it was destroyed, piles of ash and just a handful of charred heirlooms are all that's left.

"The hardest part was coming back the very next day while it was still smoldering. Because stuff was still in place," Pete said.

"You come back and you think of an item that you're looking for, and then in your head you can see it on fire," Yalonda added. "The hardest thing for my youngest [daughter] to understand: why her house is gone, but a friend's down the street is still standing."

In the two months since the fires, locals believe a misconception that Gatlinburg burned to the ground has emerged. While parts of town look like a war zone, the life blood of the city's tourist industry was spared.

Many hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, and stores that are open for business posted encouraging message like "Mountain Tough" or "Gatlinburg Strong" throughout town.

"We're resilient; we`re going to bounce back," Pete said with confidence.

Pete Thompson

Pete Thompson

The Thompsons were quick to point out that they were just one of hundreds of families affected by the fires. With help from the EMS community and complete strangers, the Thompsons moved into a small apartment in town.

"We're learning a new normal, but we have promised [the children] there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Yalonda said. "We don't know what it is; we can't put our finger on it yet; but there is a light at the end of the tunnel that will change things back in the other direction."

Pete Thompson said he planned to rebuild where their house once stood. While the structure is gone, he said their home was still here.

"I see Gatlinburg back to normal. Rebuilding, new life, new structures, and even tougher than we were before," he said. "We'll rise above the ashes; this isn't going to hold us down."

If you would like to help out – Pete and Yalonda suggested donating to the Dollywood Foundation. Dolly Parton, a native of that area, is helping Gatlinburg and Sevier County get back on its feet.