Storm chasers, Darien police sergeant helped kennel owner rescue dogs after tornado
The one-mile drive from Sue Kushta's home to her business in Woodridge felt like an eternity.
After a punishing tornado blew through town Sunday night, Kushta raced through debris-laden streets, fearful of what had happened to the 11 dogs staying in her boarding kennel in an office park off Lemont Road.
It's her livelihood, but it's not just a job. Kushta loves dogs under her care like her own.
"They're our customers' babies, but they're also our babies," Kushta said through tears.
Darien police Sgt. Nick Skweres, who happens to be one of her customers, found out Kushta was trying to get around road closures to reach the dogs. He called an officer to help Kushta find a clear path.
It wasn't the only act of goodwill surrounding Kushta on the night a tornado damaged the kennel's building, flinging one of the rooftop air-conditioning units across Lemont Road and delaying her recovery from the fallout of COVID-19.
Storm chasers picked up police scanner chatter about the kennel, Dogtastic Fun. They were already waiting in the parking lot of the office park by the time Kushta got there.
"The police are like, OK, we've got helpers here for you," Kushta said.
Curtis Lergner and his team from Chicago & Midwest Storm Chasers -- Rebecca Voytovick, her brother Nathan, and Aaron Michael Wiltgen -- had been tracking the tornado as it approached DuPage County.
They saw nothing but damage and debris when they made it to Woodridge. Village officials would later say the tornado left 156 houses with major damage. Another 28 houses were complete losses.
The storm chasers searched for ways to help wherever they could.
Coming across Dogtastic Fun, in the same office park where Skeleton Key Brewery was devastated by the storm, Lergner recalled the owner racing past the group, yelling, "I need to go see my babies, I need to see the dogs."
Outside the building, the group could hear earsplitting noise. A fire alarm was blaring, and the panicked dogs weren't barking. The pets were screeching.
Lergner and his team helped Kushta retrieve the dogs from their crates and lead them to safety in the middle of the night, illuminated only by the blinking lights of emergency vehicles.
Lergner, who filmed the rescue and the damage, tried to console the dogs.
"Calm, calm," Lergner says in the video.
All the dogs were piled into Kushta's and her nephew's cars.
"They were OK. There was damage to my roof, but it was in the back play areas," she said. "The crate area where they sleep, that was untouched, other than there's some leakage now from the roof."
Kushta now has unexpected houseguests named Rocky, Pigeon, Milo, Duke and Koba, while she waits to see how long it'll take to reopen Dogtastic. The building manager met with insurance adjusters Tuesday. Kushta's only gone back inside to gather food and blankets.
Several of the 11 dogs have since returned to their owners after they came back from vacation. On Wednesday, Kushta still had the five dogs -- some with special needs, one a hefty Rottweiler -- in her home while her manager was keeping three of the smaller ones.
"All my customers have been sending well-wishes and prayers and hopes and good thoughts for us," Kushta said.
But she's been forced to cancel boarding reservations, just as that side of her business had started to rebound as families booked vacations coming out of pandemic.
"Everybody was starting to travel again, and I thought OK, we made it guys. This is it. We made it through, and you know, Mother Nature."
One of her employees, Cassie Wroblewski, has set up an online fundraiser to help Kushta recover from the tornado, keep her business afloat and pay her staff. It's taken nine years of hard work to build a second career out of a love of animals after Kushta was laid off from a previous job.
"All my employees stood by me during COVID. They all stayed with me, so I'm grateful for that," Kushta said. "They're wonderful, wonderful people. They all stayed and helped out when they could have filed for unemployment or looked for other jobs. They stuck it out with me even though I had to cut their hours, and we were all getting our hours back up again."
The last dog is due to return to its owner after the Fourth of July. And then?
"I just don't know what will happen," she said.
• Daily Herald staff writer Lauren Rohr contributed to this report.