Path of Destruction -- The remains of businesses and homes smolder after wildfires spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tenn./Photo by Getty Images
Service Writer Connor Reis doesn’t usually have to deal with wildfires as part of his job. But he found himself driving through one to deliver a customer’s car so she could flee her Gatlinburg, Tenn., home.
Because of Reis’ quick thinking, this story has a happy ending.
Customer Claire Brandau didn’t hear the mobile alert warning of the mandatory evacuations in Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge caused by a raging firestorm. And neither did her neighbors because of disruptions to the area’s internet and phone service. But when she saw the glowing orange night sky, she knew it was time to leave.
Brandau, who suffers from often-debilitating symptoms related to Lyme disease, was at risk of losing everything she owned — or worse, her life — if she didn’t leave soon.
The only problem was that her Prius was at Toyota of Knoxville, over an hour away. She called the dealership and explained her dilemma to Reis, 22, who was aware of the fires but not the evacuation.
“At first I was freaking out, wondering how we were going to get this car to her,” he says. “One of the things we do here is to try to make customers as happy as they possibly can be. I knew it was a tense situation and she needed her car to evacuate. The dealership was closing in an hour and I couldn’t send a porter. I decided to go out there myself.”
Reis called a friend to follow him in his truck to give him a ride back. The trip took more than an hour and a half, and became more dangerous once he got off the freeway.
“Near Gatlinburg, everything changed,” he says. “There were 90 mph winds and I could see the glow when we came over the ridge.”
A tree fell down in the middle of the road, about a quarter-mile from Brandau's house. A neighbor used his chainsaw to cut it up and they pulled the pieces off the road. Reis drove the rest of the way white knuckling the steering wheel, and saw another tree fall next to her house.
Speedy Responder -- Service Writer Connor Reis took customer service to a new level when he braved wildfires to reach a customer. With his help, she safely evacuated the deadly firestorm ravaging Gatlinburg, Tenn.
“When we arrived she was super thankful — the first thing she did was run out and hug me,” he says. “I asked her if she needed any help getting into the car and she said that she had it all ready by the door.”
Brandau made it to an evacuee shelter, with some help along the way from two men who cleared a fallen tree in her path. Her home was unharmed, but the fire devastated 2,400 homes and businesses and 14 people lost their lives.
"There's so many heroes," she later told USA Today. "All I can think of is I'm so proud of us. I'm so proud of us. Because we didn't sit around and wait. There would have been a hell of a lot more deaths if people weren't smart enough to say, 'I'm not waiting on them to evacuate us, I'm getting out.' "
Reis says he “couldn’t live with myself not knowing what would happen if I didn’t go out there.”
But he also believes he did what any Toyota of Knoxville associate would do to help a customer.
“That’s just how it is here,” says Reis, who’s worked at the dealership since 2015.
General Manager Eddie Triplett says that Reis exemplifies the dealership’s values and customer relationship-driven culture.
“Our associates are trained and consistently encouraged to place the customer’s needs at the forefront of every decision that must be made on a daily basis,” he says. “If the solution to an opportunity doesn’t meet the customer’s immediate needs, it doesn’t meet ours. Connor’s unscripted, undirected actions in this situation indicate that he truly gets it. We are very proud of his decision making and actions in this particular case.”
By Karen Nielsen