Rachel Spiewak becomes emotional, her voice cracking as she talks about what could have happened to her family if Tucker hadn’t woken them up the night a catastrophic fire destroyed their Virgil home.
She’s not the only one who recognizes the heroic actions of the six-year-old shepherd-rottweiler mix. Last Tuesday, Tucker was one of three animals from across the country inducted into the Canadian Purina Animal Hall of Fame for saving the lives of his family.
Spiewak and her partner Jason Chafe were at home Sept. 16, 2018, with Cole, Chafe’s son from a previous marriage, and their son Keegan. Rachel’s two older sons were staying with their father. Chafe and Keegan, a toddler, were in the master bedroom with her, said Spiewak, and Cole was asleep down the hall.
Tucker, adopted as a Christmas present for the older boys, had quickly become part of the extended family, she said, and slept on the master bedroom floor. That night, when he began barking and whining, she tried to get him to be quiet and lie down so he wouldn’t wake up Keegan, but he wouldn’t settle. He got up on the bed and continued whining and pawing at her, unusual behaviour for him. Sensing something was wrong, she sent Chafe to the door of the bedroom to see what was so upsetting
When he opened the door, all they could see was a bright orange wall of fire.
Spiewak says they quickly made a plan for her to take Keegan, Chafe would get Cole, and they would meet outside with Tucker.
Their choices were to take the stairs, or to go out a window, said Spiewak, and she chose to rush down the stairway. Half naked, she realized she didn’t have time to grab clothes, even though she ran right by a basket of clean laundry. Later, once she was outside, two neighbouring women gave her something to throw on.
She didn’t know as she ran down the stairs the fire was already blazing through the whole house, although she sensed the section where the master bedroom was located, nearest the garage, was quickly being destroyed and they had to hurry to get out right away.
But when they were safely gathered outside, Tucker ran back into the burning house, toward the basement door. Spiewak said she “threw Keegan” at a neighbourhood teen and ran after Tucker, dragging him out again. She believes he was concerned about Ayden, whose bedroom was in the basement, and who most nights would have been sleeping downstairs. “If Ayden had been home, he wouldn’t have been able to get out,” she said.
As horrific as that night was, and will remain in her memory, Spiewak said, “we couldn’t have asked for much more. Without Tucker it could have been so much worse. When you get a pet, you don’t think he’s going to save your life years later. All he does is love you unconditionally. Tucker knew he had to get us out. He knew he had to do what he did.”
Ragen McGowan, an American research scientist in pet behaviour based in Missouri, works with Purina Canada on applications for pet nominations to the Purina Hall of Fame. She read the application for Tucker, sent in by a friend of Spiewak’s, and met the family pet at the induction ceremony in Toronto last Tuesday.
She said dogs have evolved in close association with people, and are social animals who want to protect their families. Tucker did everything he could to use his “great communication skills” that night, and persisted until he was successful in alerting the family to danger. It’s difficult to know what triggered his need to communicate — it could have been the smell from the chemical change in the environment, the noise, or the increased heat he felt, said McCowan.
“He did everything he could to get them out, and didn’t want to leave,” she said. “It shows the strong bond to his family.”
That he wanted to go back inside, concerned for the other children in the house, shows he was in crisis mode, and was willing to put himself in danger to save them, she said. “I’ve heard amazing stories about dogs coming to the rescue of humans,” she said, adding they put the lives of their families before their own self-preservation out of loyalty and love for their family members.
Since 1968, when Purina began recognizing heroic feats of family pets, there have been182 animals inducted. Of those, 154 are dogs, the rest cats, and one horse, she said.
“It really speaks to the close connection pets can have to humans. All of those have been life-saving situations, but not all who are nominated are chosen. It’s a pretty high bar to meet.”
Once Tucker and the family were safely outside that night and the fire trucks arrived, the damage was so extensive the firefighters concentrated on saving the two neighbouring homes, said Spiewak.
“Rob Read was the first firefighter to arrive. I didn’t understand why they weren’t trying to save the house. I still thought it was going to be okay. I remember Rob saying, ‘Rachel, you have to let it go.’”
One of the neighbouring houses ended up with minor damage, the other more extensive, including smoke damage. That neighbour had been woken up by the smoke, but didn’t realize at first how extensive the fire was or how quickly it was spreading. He and his family stayed in the same hotel as Spiewak, Chafe and the boys.
“Our neighbours were amazing. I couldn’t help but feel guilty about what happened, but they never said or did anything to make us feel guilty. They were so supportive.”
Spiewak’s house was so thoroughly destroyed not even the foundation could be saved, she said, and given how little was left to investigate, the Ontario Fire Marshal couldn’t determine a cause — he could only say the fire started in the garage.
In the weeks leading up to the fire, she said, she and Chafe had been working on clearing out the garage, installing work benches and sorting out the kids’ stuff. There was a lawn mower that hadn’t been used that day and a gas can, but the garage was cleaner than it had ever been.
It still is not easy for her to accept she’ll never know what caused the fire that destroyed her home, realizing how close she and her family came to being hurt or even killed in the blaze.
“I’m not going to lie, I’m scared. If we don’t know what caused it, how can we be sure it won’t happen again,” she said.
She and Chafe are in the midst of overseeing the building of a new house on the same lot. Other than a few minor tweaks to the interior, it will be the same as what she lost, she said.
After the fire, Spiewak, Chafe and the boys were offered an Airbnb close by to stay at until they were able to rent a home close enough to their old address that the boys’ lives weren’t too disrupted, where they wait for their new home to be completed. They’re hoping to be able to move back in by September.
“I feel fortunate we were able to keep their lives as normal a life as possible,” said Spiewak.
Ayden, 16, is at Laura Secord Secondary School, Kalan, 13, at St. Michael in NOTL, Cole attends a St. Catharines school and Keegan is looked after by Spiewak’s mother while she works at a local Shopper’s Drug Mart. She had a successful family photography business before the fire, but lost everything — not only her own family photos, but anything related to her studio and business.
Spiewak was given a camera at a fundraiser for the family held after the fire, but she hasn’t returned to her career as a photographer, and isn’t even thinking about it until after the new house is finished. She has added some design elements that would allow her to recreate a studio, but she is so physically and emotionally exhausted by day-to-day activities she has a hard time even contemplating taking on anything more, she said.
“I’m completely lost as to what to do with the business. I really don’t have any idea at this point.”
She remembers saying to Chafe, the night they stood and watched their house destroyed, “this will either make us or break us. We need to decide what’s going to happen.”
The loss of family mementoes, including items that had belonged to her grandmother, was devastating, she said, and shortly after the fire she lost her best friend — and had none of the memorabilia related to him.
But to balance the devastation of all they lost, the firefighters were able to retrieve a few items from the master ensuite, which was the least damaged room in the house.
One was a little black bag which Chafe had brought home, containing the ashes of his father, who had died a year earlier.
The other was an angel that had been on Spiewak’s grandmother’s coffin, so they have at least those reminders of loved ones. She still can’t get over the fact that both, so important to Chafe and Spiewak, were in the one room that wasn’t completely destroyed.
She also has a great community of support as a reminder of all the positive things that have happened in the aftermath, which she focuses on when she’s feeling bleak.
“This community picked us up and carried us through those first weeks,” she said, with the offer of the Airbnb, a rental house, the fundraiser, all the items dropped off for the family, and even the insurance company, which has been great.
“I said when it happened, ‘my heart is broken, but full.’ I still feel that way.”
Spiewak recalls in the weeks before the fire, she had been frustrated with her insurance coverage and what it was costing, and had been planning on looking elsewhere. At the Village SupperMarket one Wednesday evening, an Allstate Insurance representative was handing out brochures and promoting the company. She stopped to ask questions, and ended up signing up that night. The experience with settling a $1-million claim, including her house and the damage to the neighbouring homes, plus two vehicles in her driveway — one just three months old, — has been nothing but positive, she said. “The morning after the fire, I had a representative on my front lawn signing a cheque to make sure we could buy whatever we needed,” she said. “They’ve been great ever since.
Life now for Spiewak, Chafe and the boys is as “normal” as she can expect until they get into their new home. “It’s not perfect, but it’s good.”
What she hopes could make it better is to see something positive come from all they lost, and all they could have lost.
She is working with the help of a former town councillor, the NOTL Fire Department and MPP Wayne Gates, on a presentation she plans to make to council about changes to the fire code.
She realizes it’s provincial legislation that needs to be changed, but she was advised to start with municipal support.
The fire that destroyed her house started in the garage, and smoke detectors in the house aren’t going to alert residents soon enough. She thinks the answer is a heat detector wired to a home’s fire alert system, which will definitely be the case in their new home.
“We’ve learned a lot of life lessons from the fire, which we wouldn’t have learned otherwise. I’m grateful for that. I’ve always told the kids that family is everything. After the fire, I asked them what matters most, and they said ‘family matters,’” said Spiewak.
Her family is going to be okay, thanks to Tucker, but she wants to do what she can to make others not go through what hers has, or worse.
“We lost everything, but at least I’m here telling you about it.”
To see a video made by the Purina Animal Hall of Fame, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FMQfSv2Ty0&feature=youtube