Heroes emerge in aftermath of DuPage kennel fire
DuPage County Sheriff's Deputy Chris Obrochta will never forget the sound as he raced inside a kennel near West Chicago, trying to free as many dogs as he could from the burning building.
The noise from both a second-floor fire and dozens of frantic dogs was so loud he could no longer discern police radio traffic.
"All I could hear was the crackling of the flames and all these dogs barking and yelping," Obrochta said Tuesday.
Animal rescue volunteers are commending Obrochta, firefighters and animal control officers for their response to a chaotic and devastating scene early Monday when at least 31 dogs perished in the blaze at D & D Kennels. Roughly 30 others were saved.
Firefighters aggressively battled the fire to rescue dogs and, in the aftermath, recovered the remains of those that died. Some were burned beyond recognition.
"I've never encountered anything like that," said Carol Stream Fire Chief Bob Hoff, who has spent 46 years in the fire service.
Obrochta, a 23-year veteran of the force, was the first emergency responder to arrive. During a routine patrol checking the county's unincorporated areas, he saw a glow in the direction of the kennel near the northeast corner of North Avenue and County Farm Road. He immediately told dispatchers he was checking on a suspected fire, confirmed it was consuming the second floor of the brick structure and again alerted dispatchers to his location around 5:30 a.m.
Outside the building, Obrochta found a distressed Garrett Mercado, the licensed operator of the kennel and a trainer of rescue dogs that have a history of behavioral issues. Mercado arrived at the kennel just before Obrochta, the deputy said.
"He was very panicked, and I confirmed there was no one inside the home," Obrochta said. "However, he let me know that there were a lot of dogs still inside the home, and at that point I could hear the dogs in distress, the barking. I could see the fire growing."
Through an open front door, Obrochta also could see dog cages on the first floor.
"He was begging me to help rescue the dogs," he said of Mercado. "So I determined we had a short amount of time, but would still be able to get in there and grab as many dogs or leashed dogs as we could."
The pair rushed inside and started unlocking cages while the fire raged upstairs. "There was absolutely no way of getting up there," Obrochta said.
He alone was able to free two or three dogs that ran outside to the front yard facing County Farm Road.
"As soon as the room started filling with smoke, I just yelled out to the resident, 'We've got to get out of here," Obrochta said.
Even with time running out, Obrochta managed to lift a cage containing a large dog on his way out of the house and led Mercado to safety. He estimates they must have spent about 30 seconds inside the structure before they fled. Mercado was later taken to Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield to be treated for minor burns on his hands.
"I was just in the right place in the right time," Obrochta said. "I was able to radio it in, which brought the fire department there very quickly, and they were able to extinguish most of the fire, which actually ended up saving a lot of the dogs that made it."
Sheriff James Mendrick praised Obrochta for taking "immediate, decisive action."
"He took what was a tragic situation and at least made it a little it better by saving some of those dogs," Mendrick said. "That to me exemplifies what a deputy sheriff is and what they should be doing. He's to be commended for a quick response and running into a building that's burning to save dogs. It's commendable. He realized what was going on right away. He took some personal risk to himself to save these animals, and I just think he did a great job."
The DuPage County Fire Investigation Task Force is conducting an investigation. The blaze was so destructive it will likely be "really difficult" to come up with a specific cause, Hoff said.
The blaze clearly had been burning for a while before firefighters were called, Hoff said. On his way to the fire, he saw flames shooting out of the second-floor windows.
Inside the home was a "very sad" scene, Hoff said. In just one second-floor bedroom, measuring about 12 feet by 15 feet, firefighters found seven or eight dogs that died, Hoff said. Some were in cages and some were not.
Last March, the fire district completed an inspection of the kennel and found operating smoke detectors and no violations, Hoff said.
In August, the state department of agriculture issued the kennel a license under a new name, The Bully Life Animal Services. It passed its last routine inspection on Sept. 20, a department spokeswoman said. Property tax bills on the kennel site were addressed in 2018 to Joanne Grossman, according to DuPage records.
Obrochta's colleagues have been "very supportive" and have checked on his "well-being." He said he doesn't like the spotlight, but wanted to give credit to the responders who dealt with traffic control and distressed dogs that fought each other. Three firefighters also suffered dog bites.
"The chaos around you, you know it's there, but when you're focused on getting something done safely and working as a team, all those distractions aren't really bothersome," he said. "You know they're there, but it's just being focused on what we had to accomplish in the short amount of time."