Giles County native to receive new home after surviving Gatlinburg fire
Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes
GATLINBURG, Tenn. – The images of a wildfire that claimed 14 lives and burned more than 2,500 buildings in Gatlinburg, Tennessee last November are unforgettable.
More than 1,000 homes were destroyed.
While many families are still picking up the pieces, one couple, who is originally from the New River Valley and who lost everything, is now getting a second chance and a new home.
Sarah Benson and her family group up in Giles County. As an adult, she moved to Tennessee, living with her now husband, Terry Benson, who is a Gatlinburg native.
Their house was more than just a home. It was Terry Benson’s childhood, the place he grew up and the home his parents built when they were first married.
It was the home where he and Sarah started their lives, the home where his mother spent her final days before dying just weeks before the fire.
But all that's left is ashes.
"This house was our world and for you all to be wanting to give us back our house, it's just wonderful," said Terry Benson.
But the story isn't about the fire. It’s about faith and an answered prayer that Sarah Benson felt certain would come.
The mountain was overcome with smoke on the day of the fire.
"It was so smoky that at 1 o’ clock in the afternoon the street lights came on from all of the smoke, it was so dark," Sarah Benson said.
She said they didn't know their home was in danger or that the fire was so close. So they made the decision not to evacuate.
Then things suddenly got worse.
"The wind started blowing so hard that a tree fell over and actually hit a transformer in our yard, and it started sparking and throwing embers everywhere," she said.
It was the sign they needed -- one that likely saved their lives.
"When the tree fell, that's when we basically felt God was telling us we needed to get out. It's time to leave,” Sarah Benson said. "We had the clothes on our backs and the shoes on our feet, and that's what we left with."
They left with a bit more than their clothes. They also gathered their animals and their great-grandparents’ Bibles.
"It was God’s plan for us to not know, (but) it wasn't much longer after that that our house started catching on fire," she said.
The couple returned the next day to what was left of their home.
"I said, it's going to be there. God's taking care of us. It's still going to be there. I didn't believe it for a second. But once we found out that it wasn't, I knew that God had a different plan," Sarah Benson said.
"We started cleaning up. We started sifting through the ashes."
But there was nothing left to find. Not only did they lose their home, their car and their jobs were claimed by the fire as well. Everything they knew was lost.
Because of the unexpected death of Terry Benson's mother, the home was not insured. Terry and Sarah Benson had no way to rebuild.
But through it all, Sarah kept her faith.
One day the phone rang. It was a call from God’s Pit Crew, a call that would change their lives forever.
"We never thought that we would hear from them, or anybody that they would build our house. That never crossed our mind. When we got a call that he wanted to hear our story -- it was just right then I had faith that they were going to choose us," Sarah Benson said.
Randy Johnson and the team at God's Pit Crew made a special visit to give the couple the good news.
While standing on the ashes of all the Bensons had left, Johnson told them a new home and a new life would rise up.
"It was like the sky opened up. The sun started shining when he told us that. It was like it came out of God's mouth, like it just came from Him. It was unbelievable," said Terry Benson.
"For whatever reason, we just felt really led toward Terry and Sarah. We went down and did a personal interview with them, and after that we just knew that that was the couple we needed to help,” Johnson said.
What they didn't know when they selected the Bensons is just how deserving they were and how Sarah Benson and her family had already paid that debt forward.
During Hurricane Katrina, Sarah Benson and her family traveled with God's Pit Crew to New Orleans to help rebuild homes for families who had lost everything.
It was through God's Pit Crew’s ministry that Sarah Benson's brother received his calling to become a minister.
"It really turned his life around just completely, being able to volunteer with them and to see the good that they do," Sarah Benson said of the change she witnessed in her brother.
Johnson and the Bensons believe that divine intervention took over. Faith and volunteerism had come full circle.
"Everywhere you go, people just love her to death. It's so obvious she's made, and he has made, a tremendous impact on others and that they are really giving people and very deserving people for the help that they are about to receive," Johnson said.
God's Pit Crew built the frame of their home at its warehouse in Danville.
Cameras were rolling as the Bensons saw the start of their new house.
Sarah Benson walked through what will soon be the home of her dreams, imagining what it will look like.
"This is the family room," she said, pointing to where the room will take shape in the coming weeks.
The home will be a drastic change from the RV in which they've been living since the fire.
"We're going to have lots of Thanksgivings there, that's for sure," Sarah Benson said. "I've already told my family they have to come down for Thanksgiving this year."
The crew has written good wishes and scripture on the framing. The Bensons said they and their house will serve the Lord.
"We already knew our house was going to be blessed, but now it's very blessed. The foundation, the walls and everything are going to have blessings on them. There is definitely going to be good in our house," said Sarah Benson.
The couple believes that the walls represent a new beginning and a time to start healing.
For the first time since the fire, Terry Benson said he has the same hope for his wife that his parents once had.
"I would like to think that I feel the same way my dad felt when he built the house. He loved my mom,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
"It's kind of like we get to experience it the way they experienced it, and we know they are looking down and smiling on us and they are very happy,"
In the end, Sarah Benson believes that it’s all a matter of faith.
"I knew in my heart that he was going to take care of us, and that was just confirmation. I didn't know that God's Pit Crew was going to build our house, but I knew that we were going to have a house," she said. "I knew that we were going to get it back and I knew that we were going to be OK."
God's Pit Crew calls the project a story of fire and faith -- a story where faith prevailed.
“Every day, we can feel that He is blessing us," Sarah Benson said.
God's Pit Crew still needs $70,000 do complete the project. You can click here to donate.
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