SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Tanker 111 was destroyed on March 30, 2022. Her crew very nearly met the same fate, if not for a just-in-time phone call and crucial firefighting tech.
Stephanie Specht, a member of the Sevier County Volunteer Fire Department (SCVFD), shared the story of Tanker 111 on Saturday in a Facebook post. While working at her full-time job, Specht learned about the brush fire taking place in Wears Valley but was unable to leave.
Later, she learned that there were crew members trapped by the blaze after dry conditions and high winds whipped the fire into a frenzy. After that, she was told one of them was with her department in her assigned tanker, and that crew on the ground couldn’t get ahold of him.
“His wife works with me so trying to contain my emotions I walked up to his wife’s desk and calmly asked her if she had heard from her husband,” Specht said. “She said it had been just a little bit, and I asked her to call him. She asked why, and I said they were trying to reach him on the phone, and he wasn’t answering.”
On the third attempt, 23-year force veteran Jim Carr picked up the phone and told his wife he was trapped.
‘Hell on Earth’
Earlier that day, Carr was on Hatcher Mountain, where flames had all but overtaken the road where he and five other responders from multiple agencies were set up. Photos and videos from the day show the conditions crew members were working under:
Shortly after these images were taken, Carr said smoke closed in and everything went black. Crawling from truck to truck, Carr searched nearby crew vehicles to make sure no one was trapped with him.
“I had to make sure those young men came down before I left,” Carr said about his hunt through each vehicle in the pitch-black. Once he had checked for anyone nearby, he retreated into Tanker 111.
As the flames closed in, Carr began making his peace by recording a video for family and friends.
“I had planned on laying on the phone,” Carr told News Channel 11. “So when they found me they would know what happened.”
But as soon as he finished, he got a call from a familiar voice. Susan Carr, Jim’s wife, was on the line.
“I would have been carried out in a black bag”
After bringing Susan up to speed on the situation, the phone was handed to Specht.
Specht asked him if he could find a patch of already-burned cooler ground to crawl through, but ash, soot and smoke had become so thick that Carr couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. After taking the time to search for the others, he knew he didn’t have long.
“Any more than what I did at this point I would have been carried out in a black bag,” Carr said. That’s when an idea struck Specht.
“For some unknown reason the thought of the TIC (Thermal Imaging Camera) popped into my head,” Specht said. She asked Carr if the tanker still had the piece of tech, which had been added to their kit within the last year, and he found it inside.
The TIC, a device used to visualize heat, cut through the smoke and showed Carr a charred path through the flames.
Specht told Carr to forget the truck and get himself out, using the TIC to spot the way. Crawling along the ground, Jim said he sustained “ember kisses” along his arms and singed hair before escaping from the fire.
Once he was out of immediate danger, a call from Lt. Taylor Farrar with SCVFD and the Sevierville Fire Department got Carr down the mountain and regrouped with the other firefighters at the staging area.
“As a 23 year veteran of emergency service I am overwhelmed and proud of the courage and bravery those young men displayed that day,” Carr told News Channel 11. “Six of us went up the hill and six of us came down with God’s mercy and Grace.”
Specht drove Susan to pick Jim up soon after his experience, and after a tearful reunion, he was back home for some rest. Carr, a father of two and maintenance chief for his department, now has a fresh, unsinged haircut and some time at home to recuperate. After such a close call, the couple hasn’t been far apart from each other.
“To say the least she has been on my hip. It shook her to the core,” Carr said about Susan. “We have been soulmates for 23 years.”
The work isn’t quite done for Jim. He got his helmet back after the incident and plans to pull together what’s left of his equipment. With a son volunteering in the department and fires still burning on Hatcher Mountain, Carr said he’ll likely be back to work soon.
Only one part of Tanker 111 remains unburned today, the TIC device that helped save Carr’s life. On it, Jim wrote “Saved 1 – Jim C SCVFD TK-111, 3-30-22 Hatcher Mnt.”