St. Augustine family narrowly escapes Gatlinburg wildfires

Cathy Conner, daughter run for their lives as embers fly around them

What began as a visit to their vacation home in the Great Smoky Mountains ended Monday with a St. Augustine woman and her daughter narrowly escaping the wildfires that killed 13 people and ravaged the city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. 

Cathy Conner was just one of 14,000 who had to evacuate the Gatlinburg fires that made national headlines this week. As of Friday, a county mayor said the number of damaged buildings approached 1,000.

She shared her harrowing tale with News4Jax Friday, saying it was a phone call and her daughter's split second decision to leave the home that saved both their lives.

"Our builder called to warn me, to tell me I needed to get out of the house and a fire had started at the foot of the mountain," Conner said. "I even looked out the window, thinking, 'What is he talking about? There's nothing out there.'"

But in reality, hundreds of homes in the eastern Tennessee area had already been destroyed in the fires. Thinking quickly, Conner and her daughter decided to leave the family's dream home.

"We were in the car within 30 seconds and we were trying to travel. I mean that's how fast we were. We only had time to grab a purse and a little dog," she said.

As they made their way down the mountain, Conner said, embers were flying all around and the gusts of wind were as strong as tornadoes.

"As we were going out, the homes on our left were on fire and the flames were just jumping and the wind was just blowing the embers and the flames across the road but we could see, maybe on the other side, that there may be a clearing, so we drove through the flames fast," Conner said.

As they watched the flames engulf the homes around them, taking over houses more than five stories high, Conner and her daughter had to make another split second decision. 

"She said, 'We just have to get out and run. We just have to run.'"

They began running for their lives.

Within minutes, Conner said, they made it to a clear area where they found emergency crews. When they turned around, they made the terrifying realization that they had barely escaped with their lives. 

Since the fire, Conner returned to find that her car, her land and her home had all been destroyed.

Though it hurts, she said, the only thing that matters is that she and her daughter made it out alive, because so many others did not. 

"There was that moment where I -- or several moments, or a lot of moments -- I really thought this was it or the end. But that all these things that we worked for, accumulated and wanted, they didn't matter because even though we were losing them, that wasn't my thought. My thought was the people I wouldn't get to see again or even say goodbye to."

Conner and her husband hope to rebuild their home one day.