Woman credits dog that didn’t survive with saving her from fire

Veterinarian says her Westie woke her up before dying in early morning house blaze that also claimed lives of puppy, goat

PORT WASHINGTON VETERINARIAN Annamarie Dittmar posed with the dogs that survived a devastating early morning fire at her home Saturday night. While Riggs and Aria survived the blaze, two other dogs — including Dittmar’s Westie Mei, who woke her and gave her time to get out of the home — and a goat she was caring for perished. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Annamarie Dittmar said it was her Westie Mei who woke her from a sound sleep early Saturday morning, notifying her that her west-side Port Washington home was on fire.

“She saved me,” Dittmar, a longtime Port veterinarian, said. “She woke me up before the smoke alarm went off.”

That early warning allowed Dittmar time to get out of her house at 1330 W. Grand Ave., but Mei didn’t make it out. She was one of three animals to die in the blaze — the others were Dittmar’s four-month-old puppy Tillie and Yoshi, a goat she was rehabilitating and trying to find a home for.

Two other dogs in the house, Riggs and Aria, escaped through a dog door and survived. 

One ran up to authorities at the scene, Dittmar said, while the other was missing for a couple hours, until the Port fire and ambulance crew members caught her.

But the house, she said, is destroyed.

“It’s totalled,” she said. “There’s no way they can fix it.”

But, she said, while most of her things are gone, they are just that — things.

“That’s just stuff,” she said. “I can buy new stuff. If it weren’t for the animals, I would be just fine.”

Port Fire Chief Mark Mitchell agreed that Dittmar is lucky.

“She’s very, very lucky she got out alive,” he said. “If that dog wasn’t barking and woke her up, things could be very different.”

And if Dittmar hadn’t been on the first floor, she also may not have been able to escape, he said, noting the fire burned so hot that appliances such as the dishwasher and refrigerator melted.

Every fire department in Ozaukee County, as well as the Cedar Grove, Oostburg and Newburg fire departments responded to the three-alarm blaze, Mitchell said, and West Bend sent an engine to stand by.

No one was injured fighting the blaze, he said.

Dittmar, who runs Port Veterinary Clinic, was the only person in the house when the fire broke out shortly before 1 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 28. 

When Mei woke her, Dittmar said she saw smoke and headed to the kitchen, where she had a fire extinguisher. She looked up and saw flames coming from a fluorescent light fixture.

Earlier in the day, she said, she had noticed the light fixture was flickering.

“I thought OK, a light bulb’s going out, no big deal,” Dittmar said.

She grabbed the extinguisher, but almost immediately realized the fire was too advanced.

“I said no, there’s no way I’m stopping this,” Dittmar said.

She turned on a light as she tried to get the goat out of its cage, but said the house was already so smoky you couldn’t tell a light was on.

She tried to get to the dogs, but Mei and Tillie likely panicked and hid, she said.

Dittmar left the house and called for help at 12:58 a.m. 

Police Officer Jerry Nye was the first person on the scene, Mitchell said, and the first fire engine arrived on the scene at 1:06 a.m., followed quickly by the rest of the department.

The fire, Mitchell said, was in the back of the house.

“There was a glow, but unless you were looking for it, you wouldn’t see it from the street,” he said.

However, he said, large flames were coming from the northwest corner of the house.

“Once we knew we didn’t have anyone inside, we went right to work knocking it down,” Mitchell said.

Dittmar was outside with Nye, he said, and thick black smoke was pouring out the front door.

“It would have been enough to scare anyone,” Mitchell said of the smoke.

It took firefighters about 40 minutes to knock down the bulk of the fire, Mitchell said, then they had to extinguish spot fires and areas where the fire flared up again.

“It was very labor intensive,” he said.

Mitchell said that because there was virtually no traffic at that hour, firefighters were able to use both lanes of the highway to move vehicles and equipment, noting there were about 20 pieces of apparatus on scene. They staged their operations at Harbor Hills and set up the ambulance and a canteen for firefighters at Advanced Auto.

Dittmar said it was surreal watching the fire, and she praised the fire, police and ambulance services for their work.

“They were so good to me,” she said. “They did such a good job.

After surveying the house on Sunday, Dittmar said it’s odd the way the fire consumed so much but left other items virtually untouched.

“Fire is weird. The most important stuff to me survived, she said. 

For example, she said that  her mother’s collection of Hummel figurines in the library survived “but everything else in that room is gone.”

Dittmar, who plays French horn in the Port City Band, noted that most of her instruments survived.

Her craft room is intact, she said, with the exception of her family china — a collection of dishes her grandmother had purchase in Germany for her mother but that her mother hated.

“It (the china) exploded,” Dittmar said. “Everything around it is fine.”

She spent Saturday night at her son’s house in West Bend, but is temporarily staying at her clinic.

“I’ve had so many people offer me a room to stay, but I just want to have some alone time to digest what’s happened,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who are looking out for me.”

A Go Fund Me page has been established for Dittmar with a goal of raising $50,000. As of Tuesday night, the fund stood at $13,855.

To donate, visit www.gofundme.com/f/help-the-vet-with-a-heart-of-gold.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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