Firefighter Pet Rescue Turned Recovery Instead

Firefighters/Paramedics Connor Rucklos and Kyle Mergenthaler, and Chief Michael Wineland attempted to rescue animals during a recent house fire. SUSAN HAUSER/photo

The call came in just before 7 p.m. on a recent Friday night. Minutes later, members of the Liberty Township Volunteer Fire Department pulled up to the burning house with the Westville Fire Department, shortly after the Chesterton Fire Department arrived.

Along the way, the volunteer firefighters learned only a few details: flames and smoke billowed from the basement of the house. A woman had escaped and was being taken to hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation. No other people remained but one animal, possibly more than one animal, was still inside. Whether it was a dog, a cat or something else was still unknown.

Chief Michael Wineland and firefighters/paramedics Kyle Mergenthaler and Connor Rucklos fled their emergency vehicles and positioned themselves near the front door, expecting that due to the heat and reported ferocity of the blaze, they would soon be called upon to relieve an overheated Chesterton or Westville crew working to douse the flames.

Connor Rucklos (left) demonstrates the use of a pet oxygen mask as Kyle Mergenthaler looks on.  SUSAN HAUSER/photo

Connor Rucklos (left) demonstrates the use of a pet oxygen mask as Kyle Mergenthaler looks on. SUSAN HAUSER/photo

As they waited, a Chesterton firefighter emerged from the burning structure. He was carrying something. He approached Mergenthaler and placed him in his arms. It was a dog. A terrier or beagle mix, he guessed, and from the looks of it, unharmed by the fire.

But the dog had no pulse, no signs of life.

Rucklos immediately began directing Mergenthaler to the vehicle known as the Rescue Team. Coincidentally, about an hour before the fire department was called, Rucklos had been doing one of the usual fire station duties, making sure every piece of lifesaving equipment was in place inside the vehicle. One of the pieces of equipment he had personally inspected was what firefighters call the Pet-2-O, an oxygen tank and masks designed to fit over the muzzle of a dog or animal. a cat.

Although they had never used this equipment before, the two men did not need to say a word. Mergenthaler began CPR for the dog, quickly pressing the heels of his hands against the dog’s chest. Rucklos put a mask over the medium-sized dog’s muzzle and connected a hose to the oxygen tank. After several minutes, the two changed places. And then again. And even. “We were trying to calm the dog down, doing everything we could to get a pulse, to breathe a bit,” Mergenthaler said.

Fifteen minutes passed with no pulse and no response from the dog. Meanwhile, firefighters staggered out of the intense blaze, calling for backup. Mergenthaler and Rucklos had to halt their efforts and make the call.

“It’s never an easy decision,” Rucklos said. “Fifteen minutes is a long time. We tried, but . . . “From the blankets piled up in the rescue truck, they picked out one for the dog.

“Out of respect for the family,” Rucklos said, “we wrapped it up and gently placed it on the chef’s tailgate.” By then, family members had begun arriving at the scene. The woman’s husband was one of them, they guessed, along with four grown children. The Chief’s Tailgate became the center of mourning for their loss.

But there was more heartbreak to come. Wineland, Mergenthaler and Rucklos took blankets and towels with them during a secondary search of the scene. The basement fire had destroyed the joists on the upper floors, making every step treacherous.

Wineland and Mergenthaler are both pet owners. They suspected that they would find others. Wineland has two young labs, Jenna and Rhett. It was only recently that Wineland and his wife mourned the death of 12-year-old Penny, also a Lab.

“It just kept getting more and more depressing as we got to the next animal,” he said, “and then having to go out, and family members standing there and they weep, and they are upset.”

Liberty firefighters found and recovered the bodies of two other dogs, a Husky and a Chihuahua. Both had been trapped in the basement by the intense flames, unable to get to either of the two exits. A saving grace was that arriving firefighters reported seeing a fourth dog running panicked out the front door and away from the chaotic scene. Its current location is unknown to firefighters.

Again, the men respectfully wrapped the dogs up and placed them on the tailgate. Now family members were asking about their cats.

Mergenthaler, who has three cats, as well as a Corgi puppy and a pug mix, said he put his knowledge of cat behavior to good use, rummaging through bedding and closets and moving furniture around to find where the cats may have been hiding.

In the end, Wineland, Mergenthaler and Rucklos recovered seven cats and three dogs. They wrapped the animals and put them on the tailgate. Each of Liberty’s firefighters has gone to great lengths on behalf of pets. “Pets are family members and each one meant something to family members,” Wineland said.

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire, but the three Liberty firefighters have come to their own conclusions about how these beloved pets might have survived.

“Try to have a clear route for them,” advised Wineland. “We discovered that there were a lot of objects in the house that could have prevented the animals from finding their way.” The amount of combustible elements also contributed to the intensity of the fire.

Like their colleagues at the Liberty Fire Station, the three men are fully trained and volunteer firefighters, responding to calls transmitted through a phone app. They give back to the community, they say, and find their work rewarding. Men and women between the ages of 18 and 60 with at least a high school diploma or GED are welcome to join their ranks.

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