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Tennessee Wildfires Bring Big Loss For Little Wedding Chapel


Weddings are big business in Gatlinburg, Tenn. In fact, by some estimates, this tiny town in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains is second to Las Vegas for destination weddings. This past week, wildfires tore through the area, killing 13 people and injuring dozens more. Hundreds of buildings were damaged or destroyed, including one of Gatlinburg's matrimonial icons. Meribah Knight with member station WPLN brings us this story about the big loss of a little, white wedding chapel.

MERIBAH KNIGHT, BYLINE: The owners have fond memories of their little chapel, Cupid's Chapel of Love.

GUY JACOBS: When we talked about Cupid's, really you have to say it - Cupid's Chapel of Love.

KNIGHT: Guy Jacobs and his business partner, Lee Bennett, have married couples here for nearly a decade. The chapel has a gingerbread shape and a white gazebo out front. It's visible from the town's main drag, and the picture of it burning shared across social media became an iconic image of the fire.

LEE BENNETT: It's a small chapel. It seated about 40. We did indoor and outdoor weddings. We had a waterfall area, and we did chapel weddings.

JACOBS: There it is - gone.

BENNETT: And that's what's (laughter)...

JACOBS: That's what's left. That white isle of rubble is what's left.

KNIGHT: That's Jacobs pointing to a picture of the chapel post-fire that someone put on Facebook. Bennett and Jacobs were in New York when they found out a firestorm had overtaken Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge, home to the Dollywood Theme Park. Both towns were being evacuated, so they drove through the night - 12 hours - to get back home, hoping the little chapel was safe.

JACOBS: And then when someone sent us that picture of our chapel on fire, it was devastating.


KNIGHT: This is a big deal because the chapel has become a de facto symbol of Gatlinburg's wedding industry, which, thanks to low costs and easy-to-get licenses, is one of the country's busiest wedding spots. Between their two chapels, they hold about 2,000 weddings a year. Six hundred dollars gets a couple pictures, hair, makeup and a cake. With one of their chapels gone, there was only one thing to do - get back to work.


KNIGHT: Determined to stay on schedule, they moved all of Cupid's weddings to their other location in Gatlinburg that survived. But still, the cancellations rolled in as folks assumed the worst. But some customers, like Pam and Ken Neal, were determined to follow through.


KNIGHT: They had booked the $99 get-her-done special a month ago, so they drove three hours from Cookeville, Tenn., to get hitched at the chapel that was still standing. They arrived almost an hour early, but no matter - they were married right then and there. Ten minutes later, they were outside the chapel, beaming, "Pachelbel's Canon" still playing in the background.

PAM NEAL: He is a very, very, very sweet person - very, very caring, very loving. So I could have looked this world over and never have found another one.

KEN NEAL: You see, I can't get her to say things like that whenever we're alone. She won't say things like that.

KNIGHT: But Ken isn't afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.

NEAL: Now this is the first time I've ever been in love.

NEAL: (Laughter).

NEAL: You know, I know it's true love. I mean, I read it. I looked it up on the internet.

NEAL: (Laughter).

KNIGHT: That's Pam giggling.

NEAL: It's like you know you're in love when, like, you forget to put your shoes on before you leave for work, you know.

KNIGHT: No forest fire will keep people from falling in love or needing a place to get married, so the owners of Cupid's aren't concerned about their livelihood. But they are worried about those who died and the hundreds of others who lost everything. For NPR News, I'm Meribah Knight in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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