Firemen extinguish blaze, rescue cats

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   If cats have nine lives, Penny Miller's must have about seven to go: They escaped the fire and demolition at North American Rayon Corp., and Thursday, they were rescued by firefighters who pulled them from Miller's burning trailer.
   Miller was an accountant at North American before her death April 4. She worked in the office and often saw stray cats that had been set out near the plant.
   According to her father, Burl Garland. "She didn't want to see anything -- a dog or a cat -- go hungry. If somebody mistreated one, as the old saying goes, she'd get fighting mad about it. She brought the cats home one or two at a time until she got them all."
   After his daughter's death, Garland decided not to rent Miller's trailer.
   "I just let the cats stay in there. She has a bunch of others. I built a special house for them. One section is 4 by 8 feet and the big section is 8 by 16," said Garland, an assistant pastor at Hunter First Baptist who lives next door to the trailer.
   A co-worker at North American made the family three cats out of wood and painted them. The night before Miller died, her father said, she had worked late and forgot and left the wooden cats at the office.
   "She came home and said, 'Daddy, I'm going to run back to the plant a few minutes.' It was getting up 11 or 12 o'clock. I had made us a big bowl of fresh, hot banana pudding. She liked it hot. When she came back, she brought those wooden cats. She said, 'We'll put these up tomorrow.' Of course, for her, tomorrow never came.
   "She called me that morning about 6:45 to bring her two aspirin. I took them out there and I saw she was in an awful shape. I asked her if she wanted me to grab my car and take her to the emergency room or call 911. She said, 'Call 911.' She was sitting in the living room on the couch and I stepped in the bedroom and called 911. By the time I got back from calling, she was gone," he said.
   Shortly after 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to the 1400 block of Broad Street Extension in the Lynn Valley area. Watauga, Hampton, and Central fire departments also were called, along with Carter County Rescue Squad and the sheriff's department.
   "It appeared to be worse than what it was," one of the firefighters said. When firemen arrived on the scene, Central and Watauga were told to back down.
   Carter County Sheriff's Department Deputy Gregg Nave said the fire appeared to have been electrical in nature.
   "She had a cord running from the kitchen window into the other building where the cats stayed. She had it heated. You could tell where it shorted out. There was a little hot spot right under the kitchen window on the inside of the trailer," Nave said.
   The fire was brought under control about four minutes after firefighters arrived. The trailer sustained heavy damage, however, no one was injured, including the cats.
   "As they brought them out, they were hitting the ground left and right. They weren't hopeless, but they were suffering from severe smoke inhalation," one of the Stoney Creek firefighters said.
   "One of them was breathing about six times a minute when they brought it out, and that's not good. It was completely lifeless -- just laying there. When I left, it was fixing to get straightened out to where it could walk in a straight line," he said.
   Roger Lambert, also a Stoney Creek firefighter, said, "There were eight total that we found. Two of them were alert and six were unconscious. They were successfully resuscitated. They were doing fine when we left the fire scene. They were up walking around and oriented."
   Lambert said he has been a firefighter for 10 years and rescuing and reviving the cats was "a first for me."
   "People don't realize it, but animals are just like humans. They have the same respiratory system that we do," he said.
   Seven or eight firefighters worked on the animals, according to another fireman. "They'd hand one out and a few minutes later, here would come somebody else with another.
   "It was a nice trailer and they were all nice and fat and fluffy. They just couldn't get out. We administered oxygen to them and got them to where they could walk on their own. We got them some water and got them cooled off. The hair wasn't singed on them or anything like that. None of them had any burns.
   "None of them were afraid of us. They'd just sit there and play with you when we got them all straightened back out. They were the friendliest cats I've ever been around," the firefighter said.