Wilmington (NC) Firefighters Risk Lives to Save Dogs, Cats

Firefighter helmet

Krys Merryman

Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.


Feb. 15—Wilmington firefighters put their lives at risk every day to not only save human beings, but our beloved pets also in need of rescuing.

Thanks to their efforts, a woman was reunited with a dog who has saved her in more ways than one.

Joe Seng, 32, Wilmingtonfirefighter at Station Three, was one of the responders to the fire on North Sixth Streeton Jan. 25where Lacresha Slappyand her dog, King, lost their home and almost lost their lives.

“I was just doing my job,” Seng said. “This was the first pet I assisted in saving, and it felt good to find the dog. We were grateful that we were able to get him out.”

Seng said he wasn’t there when King got reunited with Slappy because he went back into the burning home to make sure there wasn’t anyone else inside. He said they found King under the bed and he wouldn’t come out, so Seng lifted the bed up while another firefighter pulled him out and then gave him oxygen when he was safely outside.

“It was so hot that everything caught fire and flashed over,” Seng said.

Thurston said once that happens, nothing is typically survivable, but somehow King made it because he had a water blanket “cocoon” under the bed.

“It’s possible they have survival instincts to hide and protect themselves, they don’t necessarily know that fire means get out, though,” Rebekah Thurston, Wilmington Fire Department’spublic information officer, said.

Seng said firefighters do a lot more than people understand. He said gear and trucks are expensive because that’s just what it takes to save lives.

“No lives were lost in this fire, just the home,” Seng said. “You can always rebuild a structure, but you can’t replace a life. I like animals more than I do most people, so it feels great. I rescued both of my dogs.”

Slappy said these are true heroes at the Wilmington Fire Department.

“Not only is King my hero, but they are my heroes also,” Slappy said.

She said King was given to her when her child committed suicide.

“So, this dog means a lot to me,” Slappy said. “The vets at the trauma hospital didn’t think he would make it, and no one wants to hear that their dog is going to die. He saved my life and then he survived.”

Slappy said King is back to his old self, other than a slight cough, and that she could not be more appreciate of the firefighters that saved him.

“They did a marvelous job, they risked their lives,” Slappy said. “King saved my life, and the fire department saved his.”

Slappy said the community also came together to help raise $3,564 for King’s emergency bills.

“If you are good to a dog, he will be good to you,” Slappy said. “He knows how much I love him, and I thank God for those heroes.”

So far this year, the Wilmington Fire Departmenthas saved seven pets: Four dogs and three cats.

Last year, the department rescued 39 pets, including 28 dogs, seven cats and four unclassified pets including a turtle, and rescued 21 pets in 2019: 19 dogs and three cats.

According to Thurston, some of the animal rescues are from fires, car crashes, from cats and dogs getting stuck in weird places such as sewers, and animals being left in cars that are locked.

Station Eight Wilmington firefighter David DeVilbiss, 25, has worked for the department for four years.

He said no matter what anyone needs, they can always count on the department to get the job done and help them.

“I have gone to leaking toilets, animals in the sewer, that’s our job, and we are here to help with anything,” DeVilbiss said. “We are sort of jacks-of-all-trades.”

DeVilbiss said there was a fire a couple of years ago when a man robbed a gas station at gunpoint, and then barricaded himself in his home. The man proceeded to light his house on fire while he was inside. He then came out of the house when the smoke got bad. When the firefighters entered the house to put the fire out, they found dogs inside.

One of the dogs did not make it, but one was still alive.

DeVilbiss said the firefighters took the yellow Labrador Retriever to an emergency animal hospital, and she ended up making a full recovery.

“Animal control didn’t let the owner have the dog back, so they put her up for adoption and asked the firefighters if anyone was interested,” DeVilbiss said. “I ended up adopting her and named her ‘Phoenix’ because she rose from the ashes, and I knew I could give her a way better life than what she had.”

Thurston made it clear that the department is not in the business of taking away animals usually. There were past incidents at that same house that led to her removal from the home.

Phoenixis now four years old and in good health.

DeVilbiss said he personally has never had to pull out a person from a fire, but he has saved animals.

“It’s very humbling,” DeVilbiss said. “Pets are family, and it’s almost the same thing as saving a human being. When they lose everything, that one little thing, even going back in to get pictures, they are grateful and it makes you feel good about yourself.”

DeVilbiss said the department encourages people not to stay inside a burning structure to save their animals. He said homeowners will try to go back in and get their pets out, but they prefer that people get out fast and let them do the job because they have the gear and are trained to do so.

“Depending on how bad the fire is, we try our best to go back in and find their pets,” DeVilbiss said. “It’s difficult to locate pets, though, because they are harder to see, especially when they have their different hiding spots in the house. They usually survive because they stay low to the ground.”

However, DeVilbiss said, he doesn’t make the decisions on whether or not it’s safe to go back inside and rescue pets.

“There comes a point when there is too much fire or risk for collapse and it’s really unsafe for us to be in there, but we are going to push our limits as best we can to try and save any life that is in a fire,” DeVilbiss said. “Our gear is very protective, and it takes a group effort.

“When we took the oath, we swore to protect other lives before our own.”

Reporter Krys Merrymancan be reached at 910-343-2272 or kmerryman@gannett.com.


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