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'Extremely heart wrenching' | 75 dogs killed in fire at Ponderosa Pet Resort in Texas

Fire Chief John Sullivan said that firefighters responded quickly to calls reporting a fire at the resort but were unable to save any of the dogs.

GEORGETOWN, Texas — Approximately 75 dogs died in a fire at the Ponderosa Pet Resort in Georgetown on Saturday, Sept. 18, the Georgetown Fire Department chief confirmed Sunday. The City of Georgetown confirmed all the animals involved were dogs.

Twenty-five firefighters responded to the fire after the department received multiple 911 calls of flames at the resort at approximately 10:56 p.m. on Saturday. Crews arrived on the scene within 4.5 minutes and discovered heavy fire and smoke.

Sullivan said the initial focus was to save as many lives as possible. Crews gained access to the building and were able to open some ventilation to try to control some of the smoke. However, they were unable to save any of the dogs inside the building. Sullivan said there were no humans inside.

"I’m shocked. I’ve been doing this for 29 years and this is the first incident that I’ve had where we’ve lost so many pets. And, again, I hate to use that term because, to me, a pet is a lot more than a pet. It is the closest friend. And I wish I could convey my internal emotions adequately," Sullivan said, adding, "I just wish I could go back in time to make it better."

Sullivan said the building is metal, so it is not a total loss. However, the building did sustain significant smoke and fire damage inside.

Investigators looking into what led up to the devastating fire

Sullivan said the department's focus has now shifted from trying to save lives to trying to figure out what caused the fire, as well as reuniting families with their pets. As of about 10 a.m. Sunday, the initial investigation has been finalized and the department is working with the resort owner to reunite families with their pets, something they're hoping to execute over the next 24 hours.

Sullivan said the fire department cannot confirm any information about fire alarms or sprinkler systems at this time, as the investigation is active and ongoing, but he said they are looking into notification systems. He also said that this type of building would not be required to have a sprinkler system based on how long it has existed and the general type of occupancy.

The Ponderosa Pet Resort's website also states on its FAQ page that the resort does not have staff on-site 24 hours a day.

Sullivan said the investigation process is first to find the origin of the fire, then to look at the different causational factors and rule them out. He said the department has brought in arson dogs and is evaluating all manner of possible causes, including electrical and natural causes. They are also reviewing video footage. As of Monday, officials said there is no indication of criminal intent.

"We’re looking at all leads possible so that when we look these … owners back in the eye, those that lost family members, we can tell them conclusively what happened but then, more importantly, not just what happened, this is where, together, we can try to figure out how we can prevent something like this from happening again in the future," Sullivan said.

Sullivan also said that the resort owner is being extremely cooperative and is extremely remorseful about this situation. The fire department has no reason to believe the owner was trying to compromise the care of any of the dogs. 

In an email to customers obtained by KVUE, owner of Ponderosa Pet Resort Phillip Paris said there are 59 families that lost a pet. He said the process of returning pets to their owners started Monday.

Families can retrieve their pets at the Georgetown Veterinary Hospital, according to the email, but the resort is asking owners to coordinate the pick-up.

“I know that this has been an incredibly challenging time for you all,” Paris wrote. “Our hearts go out to you and we share in your grief. I know that you have questions about how this could happen and how may it be prevented in the future, not only for our facility, but many others. We share those questions as well and will be diligent about finding solutions moving forward. Right now, we grieve with you and cherish the memories of your pet that you graciously shared with us.”

In a different email, Paris said the business will be closed until further notice. Paris wrote that the owners do plan to rebuild and re-open in the future but they “simply just don’t have the details at this moment.”

KVUE's Conner Board got in contact with Paris and asked to speak with him. Paris told Board that the resort is still notifying some clients of the fire because some have been hard to reach. He said his priority is contacting these clients and coordinating returning the pets to their owners for closure.

Dozens of families mourning the loss of their best friend

Sullivan said he does not have much information on the resort's tenants, but he does know that several City of Georgetown workers had pets who were staying at the resort, so this situation hits close to home. Sullivan also confirmed that two dogs belonging to Georgetown Police Officer Michelle Gattey, who died from COVID-19 complications earlier this week, were staying at the resort.

Board spoke with the couple who was planning to adopt one of Gattey's dogs.

"They were very sweet boys and Michelle loved them very much," said Gilby Chapperson. "Granger would follow Michelle around the house and liked to steal things and hide them. Granger was named after country singer Granger Smith (Michelle's favorite country singer)."

KVUE spoke to two pet owners who lost their dogs in the fire. Korin Hardt, who lost her dog, Sammy, said she has not stopped crying since she got the call. Jenni Signorelli, who lost her dog, Ace, said he was part of her family and this all feels like a bad movie. 

"We'd like to recover his remains, maybe get some answers. What happened, why it happened," said Korin Hardt, who lost her dog. "How can we change it? How can we prevent this in the future? If it's a law that needs to be changed, then I'll work on changing the law."

Sullivan said the first responders themselves are dealing with grief related to this fire.

"It’s hard to accept the fact that we showed up in such a quick fashion, yet were unable to save even one life in this building. The conditions and the smoke allowed it to be such to where it was not tenable, and that’s difficult for us to wrap our brains around," Sullivan said. "And so, there is not closure for us. But what we do want to do is provide closure for those that lost a family member here."

What's next?

Sullivan said that officials should have some clearer indication within the next week or so as to what causes have been ruled out. However, he said sometimes there could be several contributing factors that couldn’t be conclusively ruled out, causing a fire to remain undetermined for some time and sometimes indefinitely because the department keeps the case open just in case new information or leads come about.

The State Fire Marshal's Office is assisting the Georgetown Fire Department with this investigation. Sullivan said anyone with photos or videos related to the fire is welcome to send those to the department.

Dr. Erica Haley at the Georgetown Veterinary Hospital is coordinating with Ponderosa Pet Resort to cover the expense of cremation services, according to an email. The hospital can cremate the dogs with no return of ashes or provide a private cremation and return the ashes in a memorial urn.

Rainbow Bridge Pet Crematory, as well as their neighbor company Rainbow Bridge of Texas, is offering free cremation services to the families involved also.

A Change.org petition has already been launched calling for a change in legislation when it comes to housing pets.

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