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The Cat-astrophic Cat-alyst

The Cat-astrophic Cat-alyst

It’s been nearly six years since that dreadful night, but to this day I still can’t catch the slightest whiff of smoke without reliving the moments that nearly drove my world asunder.

My daughter, Amanda, and I worked for a company that scored standardized tests; she, a computer whiz kid, oversaw the technical logistics of various projects; I did the actual hand-scoring of both English and Spanish examinations. Under rigid deadlines and grateful for an opportunity to earn bountiful overtime pay, we willingly worked 18-hour days, oft-times weeks on end, with infrequent breaks to go home, care for our animals, grab a few hours of R and R, then return to the grind.

It was a Thursday; I remember that detail only because it meant I’d be missing a first-run episode of ER. We were both hungry, grumpy, tired and irritable, dismayed that the stacks of tests kept growing instead of decreasing. Resigned to our need for financial input, we plodded on.

But then, with no warning, I felt a sudden, inexplicable urge to leave. Call it karma, coincidence, sixth sense or ESP, something told me to leave immediately. GO HOME. NOW! Unable to define the eerie sensation, but powerless to ignore it, I literally dragged Amanda to the car and sped toward our house, totally disregarding speed limits, barely pausing at red-lit intersections as that vague, but insistent feeling poured through my every fiber.

At the stop sign four houses in advance of our residence, a smell of smoke became evident. One building closer, it turned nauseating. By the driveway, a stream of noxious fumes visibly streamed from beneath the door and a red glow back lit the front windows. Our house was on fire.

Coldly, dispassionately, we leapt into disembodied action – that’s how we Garey women always approach emergency situations. Amanda, still painfully recovering from a hideously fractured leg, sprinted to a neighbor, requesting an immediate call for assistance from 9-1-1. With total disregard for our personal possessions or safety, I opened the door to, if possible, extinguish the flames and survey the damage, begging an endless chant of “Oh, God, please let the cats be all right. Please let them be okay. Please, God, help me, help me, please.”

An interior alarm shrieked, the only sound discernible other than a crackle and hiss of fire. I’d later learn that the inferno centered in the kitchen; the hood above our stove had disconnected, falling, then striking the control buttons, thus setting a large eye upon which stood a cast iron skillet containing oil to its highest heat level. After a time, the ferociously smoking shortening caught fire, eventually enflaming everything nearby. (Further investigation also indicated that the entire incident most likely had been relatively short in duration; had flames been present the whole time, the house and its contents would have been engulfed. I still wonder if the whole horrible event began precisely at the exact moment I experienced that mysterious precognitive moment.)

Repeating my hopeful prayer, coughing, retching, gagging from the smoke, tears and mucous drenched my face as I gratefully observed that the doors to the various closets, main bathroom and Amanda’s personal portion of the house were closed, leaving just my bedroom as the cats’ only possible refuge. Unfortunately, that large space posed a major problem, what with its abundance of boxes and bags awaiting an upcoming yard sale, a massive walk-in closet jam-packed with clothes, shoes, random containers and other storage paraphernalia, plus a number of bookshelves and dressers. Dominating the clutter was an enormous California king-sized bed taking up a full half of the room. With all of the electric breakers thrown and no flashlight at hand, I was shrouded by total darkness.

And then I heard it, a muted, mewl coming from the farthest corner beneath the bed. Contorting myself into a freakishly, impossibly flattened form and aided by the crook of the cane I use during my most arthritically-challenged moments, I hooked the first object I could discern and dragged it toward the safety of Amanda’s waiting arms. Gasping through smoke-filled, already asthmatic lungs, Amanda flew outside to deposit the frantic Daizee into our car, then returned, accompanied by a half-dozen neighbors to form an impromptu, flashlight-bearing, rescue brigade.

One by one, the other six members of our feline family were taken to safety – Gizmo, Michael Crawford, Dusty, Pumpkin, Tangie and Charlie – none injured or apparently traumatized. Our house was in shambles, but everyone was safe.

As firemen made sure no danger remained and set up enormous fans to dispel as much smoke, ash and residue as possible, emergency medical technicians checked Amanda’s and my breathing. One especially kind-hearted man, an older, self-admitted animal-lover, examined the cats, quietly murmuring gentle sounds as he brushed the soot from their coats, cleared mucous from their noses and held a small oxygen mask near their faces “Just to be safe,” he explained. (Firefighters are our heroes!)

The days that followed were difficult for all of us. Despite extensive repair, replacement of the stove and a paint job provided by the company which manages our rental property, we were in trouble. Financially unstable, we had no insurance to cover our losses. All we owned – books, decor, my paintings, photographs, needlework, computer, music, collectibles, the bits and pieces that make our house a home, even the clothes on our backs – was damaged or destroyed by the insidious smoke and soot that oozed its way through closed doors. Materially, we lost everything.

On the other hand, we discovered that we had EVERYTHING. Total strangers provided shelter; friends offered solace. Co-workers contributed their hard-earned wages toward replacing our furniture; a local dry cleaner volunteered to salvage our clothing. Churches of diverse denominations stepped up to offer a variety of services ranging from food donations to emotional counseling. And once life resumed a semblance of normalcy, Amanda and I decided to use the incident as a catalyst to become more involved in social service by making ourselves voluntarily available to help other families who might find themselves in similar situations. Most recently, toward this end, we founded MiddleTennesseeFree_4_All@yahoo.groups.com

As for the felines, if anything, the event drew them closer as a pride, a colony made more cohesive by their shared experience, as evidenced by their shift from selective solitude to a group-centered preference in sleeping, eating, and ordinary hanging out. They also became ever more affectionate and attentive toward Amanda and me, a subtle, constant reminder that together, through good times and bad, the Garey Gang can survive and learn from ANY cat-astrophe.

Read more: Cats, Kitten Smitten, Pets, ,

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168 comments

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8:07PM PST on Dec 4, 2012

this is still a beautiful article and so informative for all of us who have either survived disasters or know of others who have.


blessings to all who post here to keep janet's spirit alive [she passed 3 years ago this december]


long live the spirt of janet garey on the CARE site

7:20PM PDT on Aug 12, 2012

What a beautiful story, heartwarming, loved how help came in unasked and the cats were OK, please read!!

9:01AM PDT on Jul 31, 2010

So glad that all cats and humans were not seriously harmed and that you were able to recognize and appreciate the positive elements. I profoundly hope you never have to go through a similar episode again, though!

11:01PM PDT on Mar 31, 2010

that was so touching it brought tears to my eyes. i am so glad that you were all okay. what a miracle!

5:49PM PDT on Mar 26, 2010

TY 4 article Janet. Needed a good story to inspire me b4 going out 2nite. Good choice on pic, touching when these tough men [and women] who put their safety AFTER that of others, care even for little creatures that rely on ppl to help protect them.

8:32PM PST on Mar 9, 2010

really good story, thank you

1:00AM PST on Jan 4, 2010

what a great story

7:50PM PST on Jan 3, 2010

Wonderful story.

10:43PM PST on Dec 30, 2009

I couldn't believe it when I read your story above. I had just commented on your story 'Itty Bitty Kitty', where you spoke of how dear little Daizee came into your life. Then I started reading the story above & I was astounded at your courage and bravery.

When it came to believing in Daizee, who was so small & nobody thought she would survive, you believed in her. Almost as if you had a second sight that KNEW she would survive.

You and your daugter Amanda, have saved Daizee's life for the 2nd time.

I was so relieved when I reached the end of your story and read that all your seven precious cats were saved, including your tiny little Daizee.

It is amazing the support and comfort that friends and relatives can give in such traumatic circumstances. I am so sorry your material possessions were destroyed. These will be replaced by new possessions that you acquire during the rest of your life. However, what is REALLY important is that the lives of all your seven beautiful cats were saved. If this had not been the case, their lives could NEVER have been replaced.

Bless you, Amanda and all your seven beautiful and lucky cats to have an owner like you.

Stories don't get much better than this.


10:05AM PST on Dec 28, 2009

I'm so happy your cats were saved!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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