Family members spoke Friday about what they are facing after learning that Jon and Janet Summers died while trying to escape the deadly Gatlinburg wildfires.
The couple’s three sons, Jared, Wesley, and Branson, were injured in the fire. They are recovering physically, and they are keeping their spirits up despite learning the heartbreaking news about their parents.
“I got a call from the secretary ‘your three nephews are in the burn center at Vanderbilt and by the way, your brother and his wife are missing,'” Jim Summers said, as he recalled the day he heard the news of what happened to his family.
Jim, a Memphis attorney, received the call while he was working on a case in Nashville. He rushed to the hospital and then waited for word about Jon and Janet. Confirmation of their death didn’t come until Thursday afternoon. Jim was tasked with telling the boys their parents had died.
When they boys ran through the flames in order to escape the inferno, they were separated from their parents. Jim said the boys are now agonizing over if there was something they could have done.
“How did we get separated? Should we have done this, should we have done that, and second guessing,” Jim said, referring to the thoughts and questions of the boys.
Jim, and his cousin, Marsha Crownover, joined Dr. J. Blair Summitt to thank the community for its support and update everyone on the men’s recoveries.
“I want to thank the community, and the people, our friends and family, who have been absolutely overwhelming in their support,” Jim Summers said. “I watched what happens in a burn center and this is the most professional, kind, and compassionate group of people I have ever come in contact in my 66 years. I will carry this with me forever. They have been overwhelming in their care for the kids, and they have put up with the hoards of family and goofiness of all of us bouncing off walls and walking in and asking questions out of the blue.”
When flames interrupted their family vacation in Smoky Mountains National Park, Jon, Janet, and their sons got into a vehicle and tried driving to safety. They were forced to abandon their vehicle and try and outrun the fire when they encountered a tree blocking the road.
“They [Jared, Wesley, and Branson] went through walls of fire, an entire road, both sides of the road, when the wind blew up, it just fanned the flames into this incredible inferno and they had to run through it all the way to the bottom of the mountain. According to the sheriff, it was seven miles that they ran,” Jim Summers said.
Dr. Summitt said Jared was released from the hospital with some burns on his on his face and hands. His brothers both suffered burns to their arms, hands, and faces, as well as inhalation injuries.
“There are different grades of inhalation injuries, theirs were, think of it as a moderate inhalation injury. They are doing much better from that. If you speak to them, their voices still sound very hoarse, but they are doing quite well,” Summitt said. “They both are going to need surgery. They are both scheduled for surgery on Monday.”
Branson and Wesley will both need to have skin grafts done, but doctors are optimistic that the scarring on their faces will heal nicely.
“With respect to the burns on their faces, faces tend to heal beautifully. I looked at both their faces…their faces are going to heal just fine, and I don’t think they will have a lot of long-term scarring from that,” he added.
Dr. Summitt expects them to be released from the hospital late next week at the earliest, but the following Monday or Tuesday at the latest.
Jim and Marsha said just as they were celebrating the men getting their ventilators removed Thursday, they learned about Jon and Janet’s passing.
“Yesterday [Thursday] was the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows,” Jim said. “Yesterday, three ventilators came off. It was the most incredible, because I wasn’t expecting that for a much longer time. The same time the ventilators came off, literally a short time after that and they are sort of getting used to possibly breathing on their own, you wonder if they’re going to be able to handle that or are they going to take them back, then I get the call from the sheriff’s department and they said Jon and Janet had been confirmed dead.”
Jim asked the doctors if there was any way they could get Jared, Wesley, and Branson into the same room so they could share the news.
“Jim and I went in and told the boys their mom and dad had passed and the sheriff had told us and made the confirmation and, we had this conversation with them earlier in the day that this was a possibility and the boys were very verbal about knowing that this was probably coming, so I think, they were pretty, you know, even though you are sort of prepared, the confirmation is very difficult for them,” Crownover explained.
Despite a hard day on Thursday, Marsha said the men are in better spirits and coming to terms with what has happened.
“Last night was a tough night, but this morning has been just, really, a completely different day, not to make light of the situation, but, these boys are just incredible,” she said. “To reiterate what Jim has just said, they are resilient, they are the most positive, glass is half full, just amazing boys and they’ve lost their mother and father and we’ve lost family members, but they feel, they are already talking openly about the loss, they are talking about what moving forward might look like for them. We are really optimistic about their future in spite of how horrible this has been.”
The men passed along messages of gratitude for the overwhelming support they’ve received over the past week.
“Branson just simply said he just wanted to thank everyone for their love and support. Wesley had the same thought, but the other thing he wanted to get across to everyone was the fact that that weekend was a wonderful weekend,” Jim explained. “He [Wesley] said, ‘My mother and father, they were absolutely happy.’ It was the first time they had been with the family for a vacation in four years because of work and other issues. He wanted everyone to know that, ‘My parents, I believe, died happy. They were the happiest they had ever been.’ Jared basically said he wanted to thank everybody for the outpouring of support.”
Even though the men lost their parents in the devastating fires, Jim made sure they know they still have a family and they will never be alone in this.
“My family has flown in from New York, Miami, coming up from New Orleans, every member of my family is here,” he said. “So, they will have probably three helicopter mothers, they will have control freak ex-uncle, which would be me, they will have people looking out for them always. Always.”