A Knoxville woman has filed a federal lawsuit against Gatlinburg's Park Vista hotel after she was trapped there during the November 28 wildfires, claiming "gross negligence and reckless disregard for her safety.
According to the lawsuit, Holly Whitsell checked in about 4 p.m. on that Monday. She said there was smoke in the air and when she asked the desk clerk about it, was told there was no threat. The clerk was wearing a face mask and offered her one. She claimed he also said they would give "guests “plenty of time to get out” if the fire got closer.
The suit claims that she was not warned that there was a voluntary evacuation of Gatlinburg underway. There was a voluntary evacuation of some neighborhoods, but not of the entire city at that time.
Whitsell also claimed that she was offered a cookie at check-in, but that was the only food she received because the restaurant shut down because of the smoke.
"Ms. Whitsell is a Type 1 insulin dependent diabetic and needs to eat at regular intervals to maintain her blood sugar levels," according to the suit.
Soon, the guests became trapped at the hotel as the fire closed in and trees blocked the road.
"Firefighters would not allow anyone to leave because it was unsafe to be outside due to the high
winds and the dangerous level of smoke and embers in the air. At no time did the Park Vista
warn Ms. Whitsell and the other guests that the fire was close, and they needed to evacuate,"
according to the suit.
Whitsell said she stayed in the lobby for a few hours, but returned to her room because she was having trouble breathing. She had to take the stairs to her 13th floor room because the elevators were not working.
"Whitsell stayed in her room crying and terrified that she would die there in the hotel," the suit claims. Firefighters arrived around 2:30 a.m. to evacuate the hotel and get the guests and workers to safety.
According to the lawsuit, Whitsell was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has been unable to eat or sleep normally. She said she has missed work due to the trauma and gets anxious when she smells fire.
"Ms. Whitsell has been unable to enjoy her life as she did prior to the fire and will need continued
treatment for her PTSD in the future," according to the suit.
She has asked for a jury trial to award her damages for lost wages, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and punitive damages.