Orlando-based attractions in Tennessee recover after devastating wildfire

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Two Orlando-based attractions are dealing with the aftermath Thursday of a wildfire that spread through Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Employees from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa were forced to evacuate Monday night when high winds sent the fire through the resort area.

Both attractions have headquarters in Orlando.

Ripley employees were forced to leave behind more than 10,000 animals, when the fire crept just 50 yards from the attraction Monday night.

Ryan DeSear, Ripley’s regional manager, said 14 of his employees are homeless after the fire and the company has placed them in hotels and prepared a relief plan.

“There was a wall of flames but it stopped at our concrete parking deck, which served as a big firebreak for us,” said DeSear, who was the last to leave the aquarium at 7:45 p.m. Monday. “That ugly deck saved the aquarium and all our animals.”

He said he had to force many of the workers out of the building because they didn’t want to leave the animals alone. A team of Ripley biologists is working in the aquarium around the clock to support the animals while the attraction is closed. DeSear added that they were lucky because the building never lost power.

DeSear choked up when asked about his employees. He said not all of Ripley’s 400 employees have reported in but most are safe in their homes.

“I’ve got my wife and son and my dogs,” DeSear said. “I have no power, no gas but I have a home by God. The company has given us carte blanche and told us we can buy anything we need to help our employees.”

DeSear credits firefighters and first responders for saving the city. He said they worked night and day fighting the fire through high winds and tough conditions.

“Gatlinburg and the aquarium will be open and we will be bigger and better than ever within a week,” he said.

Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa was not as lucky.

More than 800 units were destroyed and 69 of the resort’s 90 buildings were lost to the blaze, which originated in the Great Smoky Mountains. The resort was at 70 percent occupancy with about 1,200 registered guests when the first building caught fire. All were evacuated and there were no injuries.

Mark Waltrip, chief operating officer of Westgate Resorts, traveled from Orlando to Gatlinburg to assess the damage. The resort employs about 1,100 people.

The fire did not touch another 323 units in 17 cabin buildings and a lodge. The resort’s water park, grocery store, check-in building and a restaurant were also undamaged.

Westgate Resort officials told the Orlando Sentinel they plan to reopen the resort in the next two weeks.

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The youngest of seven children, Terry O. Roen followed two older brothers into journalism. Her career started as a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, where she wrote stories on city and county government, schools, courts and religion. She has also reported for the Associated Press, where she covered the Casey Anthony and Trayvon Martin trials along with the Pulse massacre. Married to her husband, Hal, they have two children and live in Winter Park. A lifelong tourist in her own state, she writes about Central Florida’s growing tourism industry for Florida Politics and Orlando Rising.