Many of the residents home at the time of the Hilltop Place Apartments on May 23 in Allouez were able to get their pets out. Local animal groups have reached out to help those who have lost or are missing their animals. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
Gizmo, left, and Lydia were best buddies. Their owners, Kimberly Nelson and Mark Johnson, believe the blue-eyed pair was together when they perished in the Hilltop Place Apartments fire. / Submitted
Pet tips in case of an emergency
» Have an evacuation plan for yourself and your pets.
» Have a carrier for each pet.
» Have your pets microchipped.
» Have a couple of good quality photos of your animals on your phone or Facebook page.
A Facebook page for pets missing from the fire is at www.facebook.com/AllouezFirePetSearchAndRescue. Sightings can be reported to Allouez Animal Control at (920) 819-6709.
A hand-drawn poster looking for a cat missing from the fire hangs on a gas station bulletin board in Bellevue.
The background photo on the phones of Kimberly Nelson and Mark Johnson is their “little blue girl.’’
It was there before the fire destroyed their home at Hilltop Place Apartments in Allouez last month, and more than two weeks later, it remains — now a treasured reminder of Lydia, the 7-year-old Blue Point Siamese they miss terribly.
The cat, along with her 1-year-old constant companion of the same breed, Gizmo, were in apartment No. 71 when the fire broke out the morning of May 23, along with two chinchilla rescues, AJ and Taco. Nelson and Johnson were both at work — he 40 minutes away and she an hour.
“And that is why we lost our pets. If we had been at home at the time, we probably would’ve been able to save them,’’ Nelson said.
Like the more than 100 other residents of the nearly 40-year-old residential complex at 3415 Hilltop Way, they lost everything.
“Mark and I, the first three days we didn’t think about any of the stuff we lost. It’s just stuff. We were just concerned about our pets,’’ Nelson said. “We have said to each other we would sleep on an inflatable mattress in an empty apartment for the next 20 years if we could have our pets back.’’
It’s a sentiment undoubtedly shared by others who have lost or are missing animals in the fire that did an estimated $3 million worth of damage. But the heartbreak also resonates beyond residents, to anybody who has ever mourned the loss of a pet family member that faithfully greets them at the door after work or, like Gizmo, wakes them up at crazy hours of the morning “just to say hello.’’
Becky Krull, a veterinarian and co-owner at Allouez Animal Hospital, located less than two blocks from the fire, has been driving by the site two times every day. She goes slow, in hopes she might spot an animal.
“When you drive by and look, you know what’s happened and you know there’s pets in there. And it’s heartwrenching,’’ she said. “To pet owners, their pets are like their children. It’s not just a piece of furniture you can replace. That’s a life and it meant something to them. They sat on the outside and watched all their stuff burn and knew their animals were in there, too. It’s horrible.’’
Newlyweds Rebecca and Troy Bomski, married just two weeks before the fire, lost all of their wedding gifts and mementos. It’s not knowing what happened to Tiger, a black cat with a white belly, that has been hardest.
“Rebecca could’ve cared less about her wedding dress and all the stuff,’’ Troy Bomski said. “All she wanted was her cat back.’’
After getting a text from his wife, who first learned of the fire while on her lunch break at work in Appleton, Troy rushed to the scene. When one of his neighbors told him he had seen a cat in the window, he was able to have a firefighter break the patio door.
“I sat and watched it for maybe 20 minutes or so, and I didn’t see her come out.’’
The couple went to Bay Area Humane Society the next day to see if perhaps Tiger had ended up there, and again the following week. They returned to the area around the apartment to look and posted photos on Facebook.
Cats Anonymous Inc., the local nonprofit group that works to control the feral cat population, has had volunteers searching the neighborhood and setting live traps in case scared animals made it out. They thought maybe they had found Tiger, but the cat wasn’t spayed, and Tiger was, Bomski said. A homeowner sent photos of another possible match. No luck.
That leaves the Bomskis, like many others, left not knowing with certainty what happened to their pets that were in building at the time of the fire. They hold on to hope, but also know, as time passes, it’s clear animals perished inside the structure.
“I think when the fireman broke out that window, there was quite a bit of smoke in the apartment already, and it probably scared her and she went to hide. I think there was too much smoke for that cat to get out,’’ Troy Bomski said. “ ... I never got very close to the building, and I was only on site for a couple of hours, but my lungs were just on fire that night because of the smoke, so I can’t imagine being inside the building.’’
Mark Johnson learned of the fire an hour into it. He and Nelson both rushed over.
“We were just so distraught,’’ Nelson said. “We got there and we were basically begging firefighters to do anything they could for us. At the time, it didn’t look like our apartment specifically was on fire. There wasn’t a lot of smoke coming out from where our apartment was. ... It was very difficult for us to watch helplessly.’’
They left the scene late in the afternoon, praying perhaps their pets were somehow in a protected pocket in the building and firefighters would get the blaze under control soon. But when they arrived at 9 a.m. the next morning and saw firefighters rolling up hoses, they realized the fire had burned all night.
Johnson knew his caged chinchillas had no chance at escaping.
“He loved those little guys,’’ Nelson said.
They held out hope that because Lydia and Gizmo each had all four sets of claws, perhaps they had a chance. Nelson’s best friend spent the following day calling animal groups and veterinary clinics asking them to do whatever they could to help. But if Lydia and Gizmo had somehow survived, Nelson knows somebody likely would’ve found them by now. They were extremely friendly, and being Siamese, loud.
“Our two cats were very bonded to each other. We just felt they would not have abandon the other one. We figured that they basically hid and hunkered down. That was kind of a hard thing for us to accept,’’ she said. “We don’t believe ours made it out, but we are so hopeful that somebody else’s did.’’
Nelson remembers standing outside the fire and feeling glad to see that tenants who had a three-legged dog “who was so happy and always bouncing around’’ had been able to save him. Bomski, however, recalls a more harrowing image. An elderly man who lived across the hall with a big orange tabby that residents often saw him chase down the hallway when he sneaked out had just learned his apartment was already gone.
“The look on his face ... I know that cat was probably the only thing that guy had in the world,’’ Bomski said.
Those compassionate to the cause of animals have been quick to jump in with assistance, and in some cases, a shoulder to cry on.
Allouez Animal Hospital has offered its services to families affected by the fire. It treated a bearded dragon that lost part of a tail when its owner rushed back into the building and put two ferrets down her shirt and grabbed the two lizards. Last week, owners who were able to catch their two cats — one in a carrier, the other in their arms — had them updated on their vaccines.
“She literally had the clothes on her back. She said she had her rent money and everything in her wallet sitting on the table, and that all went up in the fire,’’ Krull said.
The Animal Foundation and Pet Pantry of Wisconsin has provided pet food and supplies such as litter boxes and litter to residents in need. The nonprofit group organized a donation drive at Celebrate De Pere the weekend after the fire.
Cats Anonymous continues to use live traps and other equipment to search for pets. Trained volunteers able to recognize the difference in body language of a feral cat versus a pet cat have also been searching, but without any luck so far.
“It’s hard to accept, but unfortunately, cats’ first instinct is to hide, so they probably hid, and my guess is they were overcome by the smoke before anything,’’ Krull said. “At least that’s what I’m hoping. That’s what makes my mind rest better at night.’’
For Nelson and Johnson, who are living with Nelson’s mother until the new apartment they were to move into in a month is ready, the next step in what has been a heartbreaking journey is their pets’ remains. Johnson was contacted last week by property management to compile a list of possible salvageable items. The couple is conflicted about whether to ask for Lydia and Gizmo’s remains, Nelson said.
“At this stage, it just seems more insulting to say, ‘Yeah, we found them, if you want to come and get them.’ It’s a conflict for us. It’s something we’ve talked about and we haven’t come to a decision. It feels disrespectful to leave them, but at this rate, they’ve been there for two weeks and it’s probably a pretty bad situation.’’
Allouez Animal Hospital, which works with Forever Friends Pet Cremation Services, has also offered to handle cremations for those residents who wish to do so.
“I know that doesn’t make anyone feel better, but sometimes (it helps) if you lose something and you can get it back and have a proper goodbye,’’ Krull said.
Rebecca and Troy Bomski have asked their landlord for Tiger’s remains to have some closure. The couple has moved to Wrightstown with their 3-year-old son and say their new residence is “beginning to look like a home again.’’ They have been overwhelmed by support from the community. After posting on Facebook the clothing size for their son, Troy Bomski said they received so many responses they had to take it down a few hours later.
“We have been very, very blessed with the donations,’’ he said, noting some of their wedding guests have given them replacement gifts. “People have been very, very generous through this whole thing.’’
Nelson and Johnson have been touched as well by the generosity and support.
“We have been so lucky,’’ Nelson said. “That’s the one thing that makes the loss of the pets a little bit more dulled is all the charity we’ve been shown. It’s easy to get down on things, but when you’re in a bad situation and an entire community pulls together, it’s pretty amazing and humbling.’’
Amongst the ruins of the apartments, there is also the tiniest of silver linings — two kittens.
The Bomskis adopted Abigail from the Oconto Area Humane Society. Nelson and Johnson added Bear (as in teddy bear; he’s a snuggler), after finding the silence of no daily pet noise too much to bare.
Neither takes the place of the pets lost, but each offers comfort when their new families need it most.
“We sill miss our cats. We talk about them every day,’’ Nelson said. “He’s not a replacement, but he has helped with helping us rebuild.’’
— email@example.com and follower on Twitter @KendraMeinert.