Suzanne Collier lost her home and all the belongings in it Monday night, but she is focusing on what she still has.
Collier, 65, owned more than two dozen dogs and cats — most of whom, she said, were abused or neglected before she took them in — and many of them survived the fire that destroyed her home off Old Dixie Highway in Shawnee.
“When it was burning, my prayer was for my animals to be alive,” Collier said. “And if they were too far gone, for them not to suffer. And for the firemen.”
Of her 20 dogs, Collier said 14 survived. She said she knows four cats died, but isn’t sure exactly how many lived because several cats — many of them feral cats she had taken in — scattered from the home as the fire burned.
“It was very chaotic out there,” said Effingham County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Detective David Ehsanipoor. “There were so many animals and this mobile home was back in a wooded area, so it was definitely challenging for deputies and firefighters.”
Complicating matters, firefighters were denied access to a neighboring property owners’ pond and had to travel farther to access water, according to investigators. Fire departments from Springfield, Newington and Effingham County responded, and Rincon Fire Department was called to back up Springfield.
Collier credited the emergency responders with rescuing as many of the animals as they could and trying to save her house. She also thanked the Red Cross, Effingham County Animal Control, church members and friends for helping her on the night of the fire and in the days since.
“I couldn’t have made it that night without their help,” she said Thursday. “I’m doing better than I expected.”
Ehsanipoor added: “The firefighters and the deputies all did a great job, basically putting their lives at risk to save these animals. Fortunately, they were able to save most of the pets, but it’s just a sad situation.”
After running a few errands, Collier returned home shortly before 8 p.m. and saw smoke coming from her house. She said she does not have good cell phone reception where she lives, and her call to 911 failed. She then called a friend, who called 911.
“Then I threw my phone down and started looking for my dogs,” Collier said.
She said she opened her front door to let out as many animals as possible. She then went inside to try to rescue more of them.
“I was going to crawl under the fire,” Collier said. “It was already pitch-black. I couldn’t see. I have asthma and I was getting in trouble.”
With the smoke overcoming her, Collier reluctantly escaped the house. She wanted to go back inside, but firefighters would not let her.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve gone all the way in,” she said. “But then no one would’ve been there for the animals that lived. I guess I chose to stay with the living ones.”
Collier, a widow living on a fixed income, has been overwhelmed by the support she has received. The Red Cross provided money and paid for medicine she needs, and an account has been set up for her on the fundraising site www.gofundme.com.
She continues to live on her property in a houseboat loaned by a family friend, and friends rebuilt her fence so her pets can be there with her. Collier plans to purchase some type of mobile home or travel trailer for the land as soon as she is able.
“I moved there because I had to have a place for my dogs,” she said. “I love my land and I’m staying there.”
An electrical problem in the kitchen appears to have started the fire, though Collier said the wiring in the kitchen was not out of date. She did not have insurance on the home.
“To get insurance, I was told I needed to put a new roof on,” she said. “I was in the process of putting on a new roof when this happened.”
Collier said she knows people will criticize her for keeping so many animals at her home. However, she stated that all but three of her animals were rescues from abusive or neglectful treatment, and any animal she owns is spayed or neutered.
“They’re well taken care of,” she said. “They eat before I eat.”
While Collier appreciates the outpouring of support and most of all is thankful that she and most of her pets survived the fire, she also knows reality will eventually sink in that the fire destroyed everything she had of sentimental value. Along with family records, pictures, books and antiques that burned, she lost the first set of dolls that her mother had as a child.
“When reality hits and I realize I’ve lost everything,” she said, “it’s probably going to hit me like a lead balloon.”
How to Help
A page to raise money for Suzanne Collier has been set up on www.gofundme.com. To donate or see the page, visit www.gofundme.com/a5yrbo.