Kennel owner says he was working to fix it up before fire: 'I knew every dog's bark'
For Garrett Mercado, the fire that tore through his dog kennel and home near West Chicago early Monday took a far-reaching toll.
More than 30 dogs in his care perished in the blaze, while roughly 30 others survived. All but one of the 10 dogs Mercado personally owned died.
But the fire also destroyed his second-floor apartment and his belongings. And it crushed his plans to turn a deteriorating facility he began renting last year into a sanctuary for rescue dogs with behavorial issues.
"The building needed a lot of work. I knew that," an emotional Mercado said Wednesday. "It wasn't the prettiest building, but the work we were doing in it was something special, and in the time we were there we were able to get a lot of dogs rehabbed and adopted or into foster care."
As a county task force of firefighters and police officers investigate the fire, the kennel has fallen under scrutiny, with critics raising questions about its cleanliness, staffing and the number of pets housed in the two-story building with attached dog runs.
But Mercado said he could manage the operation with volunteers and had made plans with his landlord to improve the kennel near the northeast corner of North Avenue and County Farm Road.
"It was supposed to be a big community project, a big thing, and I lost it all," he said.
He secured a state department of agriculture license last August to board dogs for rescue groups that plucked them from animal control shelters throughout the suburbs.
State law does not require overnight supervision at kennels, a department spokeswoman said, and the department isn't required to set staffing levels.
Working professionally as a trainer since 2014, Mercado said he never felt overwhelmed caring for the dogs and had the help of three volunteers who came on a "regular basis" in addition to others.
"They (the dogs) all got attention. They all got to play with each other," he said. "They all were able to rest, and they were all getting training and socializing and more stimulation than the previous places they were at.
"I knew every dog's needs. I knew every dog's bark. I knew every dog's whine. My work hours weren't 9 to 5. It was when I woke up at 5, 6 in the morning to when I went to sleep around midnight, 1 a.m."
Mercado said he had left the kennel for "just a few hours" Monday morning to help drive a friend from a bar across the street from the kennel to her home. When he returned, he saw a glow from his upstairs living area.
By the time Mercado arrived, the fire already was producing thick smoke and intense heat.
"I ran inside and started filling up garbage cans of water and made my way upstairs into the apartment to start dumping water on everything and to start undoing latches of any crates I could feel around for," he said. "I couldn't really see anything. I couldn't really navigate my way through and it was a very, very hot."
The first emergency responder at the scene was DuPage County sheriff's Deputy Chris Obrochta, who spotted the fire on a routine patrol, alerted dispatchers around 5:30 a.m. and helped Mercado free dogs from cages. Obrochta said they spent about 30 seconds on the first floor before they were forced outside.
Carol Stream firefighters battled the fire to rescue dogs and corral them in the front yard.
In hindsight, Mercado said he wouldn't have left the kennel and would have installed more fire extinguishers.
"The ones I had I couldn't access because of where the fire was and where I was kind of blocked off," he said. "I had access to nothing but water, and that didn't work very well."
He said he kept his own dogs in the apartment. Others were loose in the brick building, in crates or in the dog runs.
"There are some dogs that don't do well in crates," he said. "Sometimes you have to block off an area. I had some dogs that I could keep loose, and then if I had to move other dogs around then I would tether them while I was shifting and rotating the dogs around. There were three that I had tethered, and by the time that the roof really started coming in, I couldn't get back to them."
Installing a sprinkler system was "at the top of the list" of improvements he had hoped to make before the fire left much of the building in ruins. Mercado said the kennel was built before he was born and fell into disrepair after the previous operator got sick.
"I took this on knowing it was a fixer-upper. I knew there was a lot that had to be done, but I was working toward the potential of I guess what I envisioned."
Mercado said the kennel originally was designed to hold as many as 96 dogs, but he wouldn't accept that many.
"Depending on what the dog was going through and what kind of issue they were having, some can go in the dog runs, some could be by other dogs. Some had to be isolated in separate rooms."
"My favorite thing to do is to socialize dogs and teach them how to play and how to interact with other dogs."
Mercado lost dogs that helped him socialize canines with troubled histories or anxiety.
"They were a very big part of that and socializing other dogs," he said. "It's just something that I can't offer anybody right now because I don't have my team, my family, you know what I mean? I don't have my dogs to help me."
Twenty-three of the rescued dogs were brought to the DuPage County Animal Services shelter in Wheaton. As of Tuesday night, all but a handful had been reunited with rescue groups and other owners. A pit bull named Simba is still missing, Mercado said.
An online fundraiser set up for Mercado has raised more than $70,000 since the fire. Another GoFundMe page has collected nearly $25,000 for the rescue groups that lost dogs.
Mercado said "there's a lot" that he has to come to terms with, but he intends to continue training dogs.
"I kind of feel like I owe it to every dog that I couldn't get to," he said.