On Tuesday, local officials and the U.S. Forest Service began investigating a fire that destroyed the Ocoee Whitewater Center.
Multiple firefighting crews rushed to the Ocoee Whitewater Center in the early morning on April 26, where a fire was quickly consuming the building. They would ultimately render their efforts in vain.
Soon, stone columns, sections of a collapsed tin roof, and smoke were all that remained of the iconic visitor center.
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The location hosted whitewater events at the 1996 Summer Olympics at its peak. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which manages the site, told local ABC affiliate 9 News it saw up to 300,000 visitors per year.
Officials later called the incident a “total loss,” and an investigation is underway.
We saw the TBI and Cherokee National Forest on scene at the Ocoee Whitewater Center in Polk County this afternoon.
The building is a total loss, and the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Smoke and ashes can still be seen.
It’s a major loss for this community. pic.twitter.com/sLuSCAWEwz
— Eric Benninghoff News (@EricBenninghoff) April 26, 2022
Ocoee Whitewater Center Fire Investigation
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) initially sent bomb and arson squads to the site and now collaborates with the USFS to determine potential causes. No one was injured in the blaze.
One theory involves a tractor-trailer fire that crews responded to about 2 hours earlier. Mark Senterfitt, Captain of East Polk Fire Department, explained that some firefighters responded to the Whitewater Center incident from a vehicle fire just miles down the road. Despite their proximity, there was little they could do to contain the aggressive fire.
“There was fire literally coming out of every inch of the building,” Senterfitt said. “It was fully involved when we got here, so you know there wasn’t a lot we could do.”
Polk County Sheriff Steve Ross spoke about the building’s significance among locals.
“There’s a lot of people that’s been on this river their whole life. And, you know, that’s just part of them. And this [center] is going to be missed, but hopefully, we can get this rebuilt,” he said.
Ross also said he didn’t see a connection between the two fires on Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, the USFS told 9 News it’s too soon to say whether the center will be rebuilt.
Community Rallies for Ocoee
Olympic slalom canoer Joe Jacobi called the Ocoee River home for 2 decades starting in 1995. “What the Ocoee represents to me is a lot of growth in my own life. I think it represents that for a lot of people,” he said.
Jacobi also pointed out that the center’s popularity gave the small surrounding community — known as the Copper Basin — a vital opportunity.
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“We watched these small towns go through so many troubled times in the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, and then with the Olympics, that really gave these small communities, a community of small communities, a chance to really reinvent themselves,” he said.
“It gave people from the larger cities a focal point, a magnet to say, ‘Let’s go to the Cherokee National Forest, but not just the national forest. Let’s go to the Ocoee Whitewater Center, the place that hosted the 1996 Olympic Games.'”
Local business Ocoee Inn Rafting commented, “We are extremely saddened by the fire and subsequent loss of the Ocoee Whitewater Center. We are thankful that there were no injuries and for the Polk County first responders on the scene. For those planning on rafting this weekend, these recent events will not affect the rafting schedule.”
As of now, the center remains closed, as do several trails in the area, but roads in the area have since reopened. Local sources report that the center should reopen within a few days, and local rafting businesses will remain open as well.