Man rescues 46 dogs from kennel fire at Derby Lane

February 16th, 2011 by Staff

ST. PETERSBURG – James Campbell’s cell phone went off at 2:48 a.m. It was security at Derby Lane. His leased kennel was on fire, and the dogs – dozens of them – were still inside.

Campbell, 38, ran outside to his GMC Sierra and raced out of his apartment complex, ignoring the speed limit, as well as a red light at Fourth Street and Gandy Boulevard, before reaching the track six to eight blocks away.

He got to the kennel before firefighters did.

“It didn’t matter to me how much flames, how much smoke,” said Campbell, a father of three. “I was going in. I was getting my dogs.”

“I put them right below my kids,” he said. “Without thinking, I went in.”

There were 46 greyhounds in 46 crates stacked two high, with names such as JR’s Boy and Backwood Omar.

As the fire crackled to life in the back of the kennel, with flames he described as 20 feet high, Campbell started quickly, but methodically, rescuing the dogs.

He unlatched the crate on top, helped the dog out, unlatched the crate underneath it, let that dog out. Then he went to the next stack, working down a row.

Some of the dogs appeared to be oblivious to the peril, wagging their tails and staying close to Campbell rather than escaping through a side door into a penned area outside, he said.

“They still wanted to play,” he said. “They didn’t act any different. I’m not sure they were even aware of what was going on.”

Others were more easily led – or went on their own – to the penned area outside.

The fire grew in intensity, as did the smoke, and soon Campbell was coughing. In retrospect, he said, there was something a bit awry with his methods. He started at the front, the point farthest away from the fire, and worked his way back, to where it was most concentrated.

The last dog he let out was Blood Diamond, a greyhound Campbell was holding as a favor for his fiancée, a woman who puts retired greyhounds up for adoption in Naples.

As he was doing so, the roof started caving in, and firefighters walked in through the front door. The fire would grow so hot, it melted the casing for a side rearview mirror on a truck parked 10 feet from the building.

Campbell, who still had roughly 15 dogs cavorting around his knees, turned to the firefighters. “My first response was, ‘Get out. Close the door,’” he said. He didn’t want the dogs going out the front door, where they could escape, but into the fenced-in area.

In the end, he got all the dogs to safety.

“When I first went in, I did not think about it twice,” Campbell said. But later, he said, “It was difficult to reflect on what could have happened.”

“There was an ultimate power that was looking out for them and looking out for me,” he said.

Vera Rasnake, a spokeswoman for Derby Lane, said the fire’s cause appeared to be electrical. The track at 10490 Gandy Blvd. N. has 22 buildings designed as kennels, which are separate from the main track building. Because only 16 are in use, there was no problem finding the 46 dogs new accommodations.

Lt. Joel Granata, spokesman for St. Petersburg Fire Rescue, said investigators are looking at a large heating and air conditioning unit that hangs on the side of the building. They believe it malfunctioned.

Campbell’s kennel was destroyed, and a nearby one sustained minor damage, said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue District Chief Dean Adamides. The kennel was valued at roughly $35,000.

Campbell leases the building from the track, but he lost an array of equipment inside designed for the dogs’ care such as a an ultrasound tool used for deep-tissue massage, a magnetic box used to increase a dog’s blood flow to injuries so they heal faster, and a scale to make sure a greyhound doesn’t weigh too much, or too little, before a race.

Granata said the contents destroyed were worth about $2,500.

Rasnake said Campbell was able to get to the fire so quickly in part because of the safety and security systems in place at the track. It was a temperature gauge in the kennel, designed so the dogs’ conditions don’t get too hot or too cold, that was initially set off, and it automatically alerted the security station.

The trainer for the greyhounds was also alerted, with an automatic message sent to her cell phone, but she wasn’t in the area, Rasnake said. A guard at the security station called Campbell.

He doesn’t own the dogs but is paid to take care of them.

Reporter Chip Osowski contributed to this report.


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