Barbara Wansor, left, and Jennifer Conner, right, helped save 15 dogs from a smoking kennel at Kent Animal Shelter yesterday. Photo: Katie Blasl

The two veterinary technicians had just arrived at Kent Animal Shelter yesterday morning when a panic-stricken kennel attendant burst into the clinic, out of breath from running.

“I need help,” she said.

By the time they reached the kennel, clouds of black smoke were billowing out of the building’s chimney. Filled with mounting dread, veterinary technician Barbara Wansor opened the door.

“It was like a black wall,” Wansor said. “It was just engulfed with this black, dark smoke.”

Though she could barely see, she could hear the shelter’s dogs barking frantically in their kennels.

“A part of me said, ‘Barbara, don’t go in there. It’s probably not safe,’” Wansor recalled later yesterday afternoon. “But I knew there were animals in there that needed to be saved.”

They made their way tentatively through the thick fumes, opening doors slowly to make sure no flames would leap out at them.

“We didn’t know if it was a fire,” said Jennifer Conner, the other veterinary technician who helped rescue the dogs.

When it became clear that there were not any flames, they began unlocking cages and leading the dogs out of the kennel as fast as they could.

A soot-covered dog waits in a cage at the shelter’s clinic. Courtesy photo.

“God knows how long they were in there with all that smoke,” Wansor said. “They were frantic. They didn’t know what was going on.”

One by one, the dogs were led from the smoking building. “They were totally covered in soot,” Wansor recalled. “All the white ones were no longer white. They were all black.”

By the time they got all 15 dogs out of the building, Riverhead Fire Department had arrived on the scene. The source of all the smoke, firefighters quickly determined, was a faulty oil burner.

An oil burner company was called to handle the issue as firefighters cleared the building of smoke.

After the two veterinary technicians had checked all the animals for injury at the clinic, they were themselves transported to Peconic Bay Medical Center for smoke inhalation, along with two kennel attendants who also helped evacuate the dogs. The animals were then transported to Riverhead Animal Hospital, where they will remain for the rest of the week for monitoring while the kennel is cleaned up.

“We’re just glad everybody walked out of there okay,” Wansor said.

All four workers were released from Peconic Bay Medical Center later that afternoon – which, for Wansor and Conner, meant getting right back to work. By mid-afternoon, they were back in the clinic’s operating room for several feline spay surgeries that had been scheduled for yesterday.

“The soot got everywhere, but I cleaned up most of it so I could go back to work,” Wansor said, laughing. She pulled up her pants leg to show the soot that still covered her lower leg. “It was all over my face, my hands.”

Residual soot cakes the floor at Kent Animal Shelter’s kennel following yesterday’s incident. Courtesy photo.

“We’re a little tired, but we’re troopers,” Conner said cheerfully, and both women started laughing again.

Kent Animal Shelter’s executive director, Pam Green, called their actions “heroic.”

“They’re very devoted to the animals,” Green said. “You couldn’t even see in there.”

But the two women were both remarkably humble about the rescue. “Your adrenaline kicks in and you just do what needs to be done,” Wansor said

The shelter is looking to tear down three of the five buildings on its property and consolidate them into a single, state-of-the-art facility, capable of housing more than twice the number of animals it currently can. Photo: Katie Blasl
The shelter is looking to tear down three of the five buildings on its property and consolidate them into a single, state-of-the-art facility, capable of housing more than twice the number of animals it currently can. Photo: Katie Blasl

This incident comes in the midst of a heated battled to upgrade Kent Animal Shelter’s aging facilities. Built almost 50 years ago, the shelter’s five buildings are in constant need of repair and can no longer meet the needs of the shelter, which houses hundreds of pets each year and spays and neuters thousands more.

But its location at the edge of the environmentally sensitive Pine Barrens core preservation area means that the shelter is regulated by strict legislation that was passed 25 years after Kent Animal Shelter was built in 1968.

Delays in the shelter’s expansion plans, which have come under fire from local environmentalist group Long Island Pine Barrens Society, have led to shelter to consider moving to a new location altogether – though its options seem to be limited. A potential property in Shoreham, which formerly housed the Tallgrass golf club, has since been taken off the table.

Though the oil burner that malfunctioned yesterday was replaced just a few years ago, Green says it needs to run “full steam” to keep the temperature warm enough in the kennel.

“It’s such an antiquated building,” Green said yesterday. “We had eight inches of insulation installed in the attic a few years ago, but even that’s not enough. If we didn’t have such an old building, this wouldn’t have happened.”

The kennel will be cleaned of soot and smoke residue over the next week. The shelter’s dogs will stay at Riverhead Animal Hospital until then.

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Katie, winner of the 2016 James Murphy Cub Reporter of the Year award from the L.I. Press Club, is a co-publisher of RiverheadLOCAL. A Riverhead native, she is a 2014 graduate of Stony Brook University. Email Katie