Coy Freeman was sleeping soundly in his Fuller Park home early Thursday when his service dog Rello began making a lot of noise.
“He was barking outrageously and scratching on the door,” Freeman said. Then he noticed that fire and smoke was filling the coach house where he and his uncle lived.
“We grabbed as many dogs as we could before the smoke got so bad the firefighters wouldn’t let us in there,” said Freeman, 43.
They saved three dogs and five puppies, all of which were American Bullys. Three animals didn’t make it, a mother, daughter — both of which were also service dogs — and granddaughter.
“I’m heartbroken,” Freeman said. “I spent every moment of my life taking care of these dogs. I’m visually impaired, and I love the dogs.”
He credited 6-year-old Rello for alerting him to the blaze.
“The dog woke us up. ... He’s the hero.”
The fire broke out in a vacant building around 3:30 a.m. and spread to six other buildings, including two coach houses, in the 4900 block of South Princeton Avenue, according to the Chicago Fire Department.
Eight people were displaced and none was injured, fire officials said. During a search, firefighters rescued the four puppies, and paramedics provided oxygen to them.
Freeman said he lived on the block for five years and suspects the fire may have been set on purpose.
“This is the work of a professional arsonist,” he said. “Just like what’s been through the rest of this neighborhood. Houses don’t catch on fire like that over here. We’ve been in this neighborhood forever. This type of s--- don’t happen. But in this last year or so, in the wee hours of the night, abandoned houses are catching on fire, burning up surrounding houses.”
The fire department said the cause of the blaze was under investigation.
Freeman’s uncle sat on a neighbor’s porch cradling a 3-month-old yet-to-be named puppy with burns on his back.
“I was telling [the firefighters] I got more dogs in there to get out,” Bernard Stratton said softly. One puppy that wasn’t breathing well was given oxygen and taken to an emergency vet, he said.
Stratton, 57, said this was the second tragedy to strike him in two months. His 29-year-old son, who went by the same name, was shot and killed on the Dan Ryan Expressway near 33rd Street on Aug. 6, he said.
Stratton said his son’s ashes were still in the home, but he hasn’t been allowed back in to retrieve them. “I hope they’re OK and that I can get them,” he said.
Freeman said the loss of his dogs was painful because he had invested a lot of time and effort raising them.
“I love these dogs. I’m hurt so much right now,” Freeman said. “I’m trying to figure it out right now. I can’t tell you what my next move is. I’m trying to wrap my head around it.”