Cover Stories Summer/Fall 2005

Seventeen Greyhounds Die of Smoke Inhalation in Kennel Fire at Florida Racetrack

Bonita Springs: An early morning fire Wednesday, June 1, in the air-conditioning system in one of 12 kennels at the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track smoldered undetected for nearly four hours, killing ten greyhounds and injuring 56 others. Kennel owners Arlene and Gregory Wootten discovered the dogs at 4:50 a.m. "We opened the door and you couldn't seen an inch in front of your face," Arlene Wootten said. "All 66 dogs were either unconscious or dead."

Firefighters responding to the 911 emergency call arrived on the scene at 5:04 a.m. and began working alongside the Wootten's, carrying the dogs outside into fresh air one by one. Within minutes, 30 to 40 additional rescue workers, including veterinarians from Lee and Collier Counties and animal treatment specialists from Southwest Florida Urban Search and Rescue converged on the scene.

Emergency workers and volunteers labored for seven hours in pouring rain to resuscitate the dogs, holding the greyhounds' heads in their laps as they administered oxygen and intravenous fluids. "It's an absolutely tremendous effort being made to try and save these dogs," said Debbi Redfield, spokeswoman for the Bonita Fire Control and Rescue District.

Despite the efforts of everyone involv-ed, nine greyhounds died at the scene and another died en route to an emergency animal clinic. Fifty-six greyhounds were transported to seven area animal clinics. The Wootten's were taken to Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center, where they were treated for smoke inhalation and released. The track remained closed for two days.

A preliminary investigation by the state fire marshal's office indicated the blaze was caused by a buildup of dust and dander in the kennel's air conditioning unit, said Redfield. The fire burned itself out, but the air-conditioning system continued to blow smoke into the kennel, she said.

Eighteen of the most critically injured greyhounds were taken to Dr. Amy's Animal Hospital in San Carlos Park. Bosecker-Gentsch, the clinic's namesake, her husband Larry Gentsch, the hospital's director and their staff cared for the dogs around the clock for five days. Six of the 12 dogs subsequently succumbed to complications from smoke inhalation

On June 6, the Wootten's, accompanied by others, removed the 12 remaining greyhounds from the San Carlos Park clinic over the objections of the veterinary staff, which at first refused to release them. Lee Vaughn, a spokesman for the Lee County Sheriff's Office, said a deputy was sent to the clinic to try to resolve the dispute. Vaughn said despite her concerns, Bosecker-Gentsch had no legal standing to keep the dogs.

Gentsch said he believed that access to the clinic given to the media after the fire led to the decision to remove them. A series of photographs of the greyhounds under treatment at the clinic had been published by the Fort Myers News-Press on June 2. A spokesman for the Wootten's likened the move to "getting a second opinion."

The 12 greyhounds were taken to the Golden Gate Animal Hospital, which had taken in less critically injured greyhounds the day of the fire. Veterinarian John Lanier said the dogs seemed to be recovering well when they arrived, with the exception of one dog, Thumper, who was in critical care when she left Dr. Amy's clinic. Ten of the 21 dogs at the hospital were transferred to the track kennels later that evening, joining 14 other recovering greyhounds. The dogs were being housed in a remodeled kennel.

One unidentified dog died at the Golden Gate hospital on June 15, bringing the total number of dogs killed in the fire to 17.

Human Error Blamed
Fire officials said an alarm in the track's guard shack signaled an electrical problem at 1:19 a.m., but the guard went to the wrong building. The system activated again at 2:33 a.m., and the guard went to the wrong kennel a second time, according to Fire Inspector Vaughn Spangler. "Each time, the guard reset the alarm system before silencing it at 2:55 a.m.," Spangler said.

There are twelve racing kennels in operaion at the track. Each kennel is equipped with an internal fire alarm system that activates when the temperature exceeds 85 degrees, Spangler said. Fire walls separate the kennels.

Kennel Owners File Lawsuit
In a lawsuit filed July 20 in Lee County Circuit Court, Gregory and Arlene Wootten claimed that the track's owner and operator, Southwest Florida Enterprises and the Bonita-Fort Myers Corp., were negligent in operating the track. "A fire with heavy smoke was allowed to continue unattended," the complaint states. "As a result, all 66 of the plaintiff's greyhound dogs were killed or severely injured." The Wootten's lost everything, including their livelihood, said David McElrath, the couple's attorney.

The 17 greyhounds died of causes ranging from cardiac arrest to fluid buildup in the lungs to blood clots. The 49 injured surviving greyhounds will never be able to race again. The Wootten's are seeking an unspecified amount of money for pain, suffering and lost income. Corporate officials could not be reached for comments. Track managers are scheduled to give depositions in the case in early November.

Fire Ruled Accidental
The state fire marshal's office released it's final report, Oct. 4, ruling the fire accidental. The report confirmed the initial findings that built-up animal dander in the air-conditioning system self ignited, producing smoke in the Wootten kennel. The report cleared Gregory Wootten of any criminal wrongdoing in the case.

The 49 surviving greyhounds have been placed into adoption programs. Forty of the dogs were sent to groups in Ohio, Michigan and South Carolina. A local Florida group, Homeward Bound Greyhounds, found homes for eight of the dogs. The last survivor, 3-year-old Huey, was placed with the group in early October after recovering from severe smoke inhalation.

Sources: Naples Daily News: Anne Marie Apollo, Charlie Whitehead;
The Fort Myers News-Press: Denes Husty III, Karen Feldman