Carrie Compton remembers the day the Gatlinburg wildfires erupted like it was yesterday.
“The wind was blowing hard that day and the sky was gray, even more so than normal. There was an eerie feeling in the air. I could feel it even from Knoxville.”
Compton, now 40, was born and raised in Gatlinburg, and her family lost their home in the 2016 wildfires.
She will graduate this week from the College of Architecture and Design with a bachelor’s degree in interior architecture—completing a journey that has been one of starts and stops, tragedy and triumph.
Compton first came to UT in 2002, planning to major in psychology. She was taking classes and working in an acute care inpatient psychiatric facility.
“Working in the psychiatric facility was a real eye-opening experience for me because it revealed to me that I no longer wanted to pursue psychology as a career path. The profession just did not fit my personality. “
She did, however, enjoy the time she worked with the patients on art therapy, and began to think she wanted a career in a creative field.
Compton quit her job and left UT before completing her degree. She moved back to Gatlinburg to figure out what she wanted to do next.
“I took some of my recent sketches and paintings to a local potter, Robert Alewine, and he graciously hired me. My unofficial title was carver or pottery designer, and this position entailed doing relief carvings, drawings, and pierce work of mountain scenes on pots.”
She eventually learned the art of pottery and ended up spending eight years as an instructor in Alewine’s pottery studio.
In 2012, Compton returned to UT and completed the final four classes she needed to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology. She graduated in December 2013 and enrolled the next fall to begin working on a bachelor’s degree in interior design.
Compton was in the midst of her interior design studies at the time of the Gatlinburg wildfires.
She learned about fires when she logged onto Facebook and saw photos posted by her family and friends still living in Gatlinburg.
“My cousin is actually a firefighter. Her image was the first I saw, but I just assumed that she was in the throes of it.”
Since the fire didn’t seem to be close to her family home, she didn’t check in with her parents until later in the day.
“At around 5 p.m. I got ahold of my mother at home. They could see the fire from a distance in front of the house, coming in from the west. They assumed they were safe because it was across Highway 71 and the river runs between the two roads,” she said.
Confident that her family was OK, Compton went to a movie with a friend.
“By the time I got out I had missed 20-plus phone calls,” she said. “I spoke with my sister-in-law first and found out they had to do an emergency evacuation and just barely made it out alive. The road was blocked by a fallen tree and the fire was rapidly encroaching from the east, behind the home.
“My mom did not have time to grab her purse, and my sister could not find her beloved cat before running out of the house,” she said. “They said driving down the mountain was like something out of a movie. Both sides of the mountain were ablaze and they could feel the heat from inside the car.
“Everyone in my family did make it out alive—by the grace of God—and we are forever grateful,” she said.
Three days later, the family confirmed their home and everything inside was lost. Her sister-in-law’s cat had perished.
“It was pretty heartbreaking,” Compton said.
“As a toddler, I took my first steps in this home, as did my two siblings. There was a lifetime of memories built up within those walls.
“Once in a while I will come across a blanket or something that still smells like my old mountain home and tears will come up,” she said. “I think that comes with the territory of design, particularly for a student of architecture. We can develop an attachment to buildings. I did grieve for my home and still do from time to time.”
These days, Compton tries not to dwell on what was lost but focuses a bright future ahead.
She met and married her husband, Siavash Amirrahmat, who is pursuing his doctorate in civil engineering at UT.
After receiving her diploma, she will be moving to Brentwood, Tennessee, to work for Davis Stokes Collaborative PC, a company that focuses on designing health care facilities.
“My parents are doing well. They have a new home,” she said. “And I have a wonderful loving spouse, a blossoming career in design, and a lifetime of wonderful memories.”
Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, firstname.lastname@example.org)