Woman escapes wildfires, dies from smoke-induced heart attack
The wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tenn., destroyed Jim and May Vance's home. While they escaped the flames, May suffered a smoke-induced heart attack and died.
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Bailey McBride Nathaniel Howard | The Christian Chronicle
PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — Seven miles north of Gatlinburg, the Great Smoky Mountains Church of Christ shows compassion in the midst of a congregational tragedy.

As wildfires tore across Gatlinburg, destroying homes, hotels and houses of worship, the congregation’s meeting place — in a town known for its Dollywood theme park and other tourist attractions — never faced immediate danger. But the homes of several of the church’s 150 members sustained damage from smoke.

Church members Jim and May Vance saw their home burn to the ground. Though they escaped the flames, May Vance, 75, suffered a smoke-induced heart attack and died.

Minister Al Behel shows relief supplies sent to the Great Smoky Mountains Church of Christ, ready for distribution.“Our congregation has been very much affected by the loss,” minister Al Behel said. “Our members have just been deeply moved by not only how it’s impacted our congregation, but by how it’s impacted the county and our nation.”

As the smoke clears and the Gatlinburg community begins the long task of recovery, church members have turned their undamaged building into an epicenter of relief, said youth minister Mark Haynes.

“We realized how big this disaster was and how much we needed to respond to it,” Haynes said. The Christians realized “We’ve got to get out of our comfort zone and really take action.”

Haynes contacted Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort, a ministry that ships cleaning and relief supplies to congregations nationwide following fires, floods and other disasters. The Nashville, Tenn.-based nonprofit immediately sent a truckload of supplies.

Workers with the ministry suggested the congregation contact the Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team. Overseen by the Cassel Hills Church of Christ in Vandalia, Ohio, the team helps congregations set up a structure for distribution and recruit volunteers.

“We can help them immediately, but we can also help them down the road,” said Mark Cremeans, who directs the Disaster Response Team with his wife, Laura.

The team helped the church turn its fellowship hall into a place where fire victims could “shop” for food, clothing and other necessities, with assistance from volunteers in red Disaster Response T-shirts. One volunteer with appropriate experience acted as a grief counselor. Another served as an interpreter for the deaf.

In less than a week on the ground, 30 to 40 families received help from the Great Smoky Mountains Church of Christ, said Mark Cremeans, who traveled to Pigeon Forge to work with the church.

Eventually, fire victims are “going to want appliances and things that they don’t have a place for right now,” Mark Cremeans said. As recovery moves into the rebuilding phase, the Disaster Response Team will help the church make plans for long-term relief.Related storiesWildfire destroyed their building, but not their spirit
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