Love Prevails in the Ashes of Gatlinburg

December 12, 2016 • United States

Samaritan’s Purse volunteers show and share Christ’s compassion in singed neighborhoods

With wildfires raging nearby, Christy Cover fidgeted as she sat glued to the TV, watching the news. She was awaiting an alarm to warn her to evacuate her parents’ mountain home in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where she was staying. Sitting at the front door was a bag she had packed just in case she’d have to make a speedy exit. No alarm was issued, so Christy thought that maybe the house that her mother and father had lived in for 20-plus years—and the one she loved coming home to herself—would be spared.

U.S. Disaster Relief

The phone jolted her. Calling was her mother, Sandra Cover, who was out of town. Sandra told her daughter to leave everything immediately and get out because she had heard how close the fire was.

Gatlinburg wildfires

Christy Cover receives a hug from one of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains.

Christy didn’t hesitate. She picked up her suitcase, jumped into her vehicle, and sped down the curvy hill road.

Less than 10 minutes later, the house was engulfed in flames.

Jim and Sandra Cover’s home was among the more than 1,700 structures that were damaged or destroyed when wildfires scorched more than 17,000 acres across Sevier County in east Tennessee two weeks ago. Fourteen people were killed in those historic blazes.

This was the second tragedy to strike Sandra and Christy. Two weeks before, Jim, a longtime certified public accountant, died from multiple myeloma. He had been in constant treatment for four years, but they were managing it. Then he got sick and died suddenly.

“We were married for 26 years after meeting in a Gatlinburg restaurant parking lot,” Sandra said. “It’s just like being in a daze. I really haven’t had time to cry over all this.”

Gatlinburg wildfires

Homeowner Sandra Cover tries on a ring found in the ashes. It had been given to her by her husband Jim, who died from cancer two weeks before the fire destroyed their Gatlinburg home.

Then she grew reflective, wondering aloud if this was God’s provision.

“When Jim had hard days and didn’t feel well, he would say he just needed to get home to the house,” she said. “Now our home is a pile of ashes, and I can’t imagine Jim having to go through that on top of fighting cancer.”

But where could she and Christy turn for help to sift through the ashes to see if any precious belongings could be retrieved? Enter Samaritan’s Purse.

Recovering Keepsakes from Charred Remains

Our team members began deploying last Friday. Our Disaster Relief Unit—a tractor trailer stocked with relief supplies—is based at the First Baptist Church in Gatlinburg.

“Their help has been wonderful, the best blessing I’ve ever had in my life,” Sandra said, choking back her emotions. “These people are volunteering their time to help us. They are truly sent from God.”

Gatlinburg wildfires

Homeowners Christy and Sandra Cover flank team lead Paul Brock and volunteer Jeff Rouse

As a dozen people worked at her parent’s home this past weekend, Christy described it as emotional and heartbreaking.

“Mother and I have been in kind of a state of shock” she said. “I guess this is reality setting in. You can’t hardly deny it when you see things broken and smoky.

“I’m just so thankful for Samaritan’s Purse. I can’t get over the work they do. I’m amazed at the selflessness of the volunteers. They sleep on [church] floors, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and work in cold temperatures. You just don’t run across that every day.”

Our volunteers are coming alongside distressed homeowners in Jesus’ Name to help recover treasured keepsakes from the charred remains.

Among Sandra’s favorite finds was a cup and saucer that a friend gave her. Still visible on the bottom of the saucer were the words “made in Occupied Japan.” This was always meaningful to her because her father served in Occupied Japan at the end of World War II in 1945.

Gatlinburg wildfires

Precious belongings and keepsakes found at the mountain home of Sandra Cover

Team members also discovered in the soot a ring that Jim had given to her. He had collected all sorts of things, from roosters to World War II model airplanes. Our volunteers found a metal rooster and dishes with roosters painted on them among other items.

“She may be about 5’2” but she was about 8’10” after she saw that airplane,” said team lead Paul Brock when he first showed Christy a metal model airplane they found.

“Bless you all,” Christy said. “Thank you all so much. This is an enormous job that we couldn’t have tackled alone.”

An Operation Heal Our Patriots Veteran Gives Back

Among the dozen volunteers helping on Sandra and Christy’s home was Matthew Stuhler of Virginia Beach, Virginia. While recuperating in Bethesda Naval Hospital from injuries sustained as a captain with the U.S. Marine Corps during his second deployment to Afghanistan, Matthew met leaders with Operation Heal Our Patriots, our ministry to wounded combat veterans.

“They quickly identified that my wife Kristina was obviously in distress from my two deployments, complicated by my being wounded, which made it even harder,” Matthew said. “They noticed that our marriage was strained, so they invited us to their weeklong marriage enrichment seminar in Ports Alsworth, Alaska. It was one of the best things that ever happened to us.”

Gatlinburg wildfires

Matthew Stuhler of Virginia Beach, Virginia, is grateful to be serving alongside Gatlinburg homeowners in Jesus’ Name. He and his wife, Kristina, were ministered to through Operation Heal Our Patriots after Matthew was injured in combat in 2012 in Afghanistan as a captain with the U.S. Marine Corps.

During that week in 2014, Kristina was baptized.

“It was pretty amazing,” Matthew said. “Our time there strengthened our marriage.”

For nearly two months before the wildfires swept through Sevier County, Matthew was hiking on the Appalachian Trail from Damascus, Virginia, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The trail passes near Gatlinburg. When he returned home, Matthew watched in horror as he saw Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge going up in flames.

In early December he saw a post on the Operation Heal Our Patriots aftercare website about the call for Samaritan’s Purse volunteers to Gatlinburg.

“I sensed God pulling me down there,” he said. “Kristina was studying for her finals for her doctorate so she couldn’t come, but she fully supported me coming.”

Gatlinburg wildfires

Mathew Stuhler, who was introduced to Samaritan’s Purse through Operation Heal Our Patriots in 2014, shovels ashes into a sifter. 

Not only did Matthew help serve at the Cover home, but he also worked next door at the house of Sandra’s neighbor. Our volunteers found a high school graduation ring, an engagement ring, and a wedding ring—all with the stones still attached.

“The wife was happy really quick,” Matthew said. “It was cool. I really thank God for this opportunity to serve with Samaritan’s Purse. Ever since they gave to me, I wanted to be on the other side to give back. I feel so blessed that God loves me that much to be a part of a ministry that shows the compassion of Jesus Christ.”

As signed Bibles were tenderly presented to both Sandra and Christy, Jeff Rouse, one of our volunteers, told the two—and our group circled around them—“There’s a lot of love here. Whether we understand what happened or why things happened, I don’t think it matters as much as knowing that God is never going to leave or forsake us. He’s always going to lead us to truth if we trust in Him.”

U.S. Disaster Relief Samaritan's Purse mobilizes and equips thousands of volunteers to provide emergency aid to U.S. victims of wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. In the aftermath of major storms, we often stay behind to rebuild houses for people with nowhere else to turn for help.

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