On a cold January day at 1:30 p.m.—after rain, more rain and even more rain—a Seattle family’s home perched below a cliff on Puget Sound came crashing down on its owners, Didi and James Fritts, and their beloved three-year-old sister dogs Sammy and Lili. Liquid mud pushed the two-story home forward. Then the second floor crashed down on the first floor, pancaking the two floors on top of one another and trapping the humans and their furry daughters beneath.
The fact that any being survived this tragedy is truly a miracle. Sadly, Lili was killed in the wreckage, but the rest of the family survived. And when it came to Sammy’s ultimate rescue—VCA staff members were waiting and prepared to provide immediate care for her right there at the scene.
A Regular Day Turned Into Loss Beyond Measure
Back to that day, James and Didi learned that the drenched hill, a 20-foot-wide swath just behind their home, crashed down from above and pushed the entire house about 20 feet forward. “I was at my desk in the kitchen on a business call, with our dog Lili beside me, when we heard this crack and then a second later a huge roar,” says James. “The whole back wall collapsed on top of us. I heard Lili scream, but I couldn't see her. And we weren't sure where Sammy was.”
The fallen refrigerator pinned James’ legs while Didi was trapped under a collapsed wall. “Then two propane tanks behind me caught on fire and were roaring,” says James. “It was hot and really loud. I thought we were going to die because I was expecting the tanks to explode. We’re talking a thousand gallons of propane. The guitar to my right was blown into a million pieces. My head was cut open, and I had nails sticking in my legs.”
Somehow, after about 30 minutes, Didi found strength she didn’t know she possessed, and escaped the wall and the house to get help for James and the dogs. “I said, ‘get out, go,’” explains James. “You read about moms picking up Volkswagens off their kids—it was like that! Then Didi crawled across broken joists and glass, and used pillows from our deck furniture to break through the glass. Then she fell over what was left of our foundation to escape.”
To reach James, the rescuers had to climb over a ravine and up a hillside on a ladder to reach the house. But before they could get the house and refrigerator off of James, they first had put out the fire.
Next, they sawed off the side of the house and used the jaws of life to lift the house off of James and place him on a makeshift stretcher, which was actually one of their doors.
“After our rescue in the ambulance, we got the word that Lili had passed,” states James. “And we still didn't know about her sister Sammy.”
The Sister Dogs—the Yin and the Yang
Lili and Sammy came to James and Didi by a miracle after they’d lost their beloved dog, Luna. The two pups were the last ones left in the litter when James found them and he didn’t have the heart to break them up.
“I never thought any pet could ever replace Luna, but James found two four months old puppies who looked exactly like her,” states Didi. “And when we first met them, Sammy was in the back of the little kennel and Lili was in the front, protecting her sister. Lili was more outgoing while Sammy was a little more reserved. They were littermates, inextricably tied, and they’d never been separated. They were such a joy.”
Lili was the water dog who loved the ocean. She loved going in the waves and jumping around, while Sammy waited on the shore to pounce on Lili once she returned.
The two black dogs slept paw to paw, counter posed, wagging their tails in unison. “They looked identical except their fur was a little different in texture,” notes Didi. “And they were very fun. They were our lives.”
“There was no question whether we were going that day," shares hospital manager Jeanine Fitzgerald. "It was like, ‘who's going to go? What do we need? How do we get there the fastest?'”
So, Where Was Sammy?
The search for Sammy continued for days after the collapse.
“The day after, we returned to our house because we were released from the hospital the night before with primarily skin injuries, no organ damage,” says James. “We called for Sammy but didn’t hear anything. We talked to pet search and rescue specialists who recommended drilling holes all over the floor, which we did. And we also used a stethoscope to listen for her. We screamed to Sammy but continued to hear nothing for days. Then on day six, when the rain and wind finally stopped and we had clear-blue skies, I went back. But this time, I heard a really faint whimpering. I was like, ‘Sammy?’ I called Didi and said, ‘Sammy's alive!’ And then we spent the next four hours tearing the house apart.”
Didi was so shocked to hear that Sammy was alive that she immediately called 911. And then she called their vet’s office to share the news with the staff at VCA Magnolia Animal Hospital in Seattle.
“Didi called us at VCA and said ‘We found Sammy, she's alive!’” shares Jeanine Fitzgerald, the then hospital manager at VCA Magnolia. “There was no question whether we were going that day. It was like, ‘who's going to go? What do we need? How do we get there the fastest?’"
Didi had no idea VCA staff was going to come to the beach that day and be with them the entire time. “Everybody was really pulling for Sammy to be rescued safely,” says Didi.
James started to tear apart the house even before the rescue crew arrived. They searched and searched for four hours and the crew was about to give up when one young man offered to go in a dangerous place—the only place left that hadn’t been searched. And that’s where they found Sammy!!
“Unbelievably, Sammy had been encased in a joist rectangle that had come down perfectly on top of her!” exclaims James. “She had been in a space maybe 30 inches by 20 inches for six days.”
According to Didi, she came out tail wagging! And every single person at the scene cheered.
Remarkably Unharmed After Six Days
“When I first set eyes on Sammy, I was overwhelmed with joy that she was bright and alert,” explains Desiree Rickstrew, LVT, at VCA Magnolia Animal Hospital. “At that time, I placed Sammy on a gurney and took her vitals. The first responders were kind enough to allow us the use of their ambulance to triage and transport Sammy to the emergency room. Sammy was not as dehydrated as I originally thought she would be. I’m guessing there was a water source for her in the house. I felt so honored that I was able to facilitate the start of her recovery and support the owners’ loving family.”
“I felt so relieved seeing her, and I’m so glad I could be there,” says Katharine Chan, DVM, medical director at VCA Magnolia Animal Hospital, and the sister dogs’ veterinarian since James and Didi adopted them. “At the same time, I was so relieved that I didn't have to do that much for Sammy. I don't know how she survived, but she did. That dog's a fighter. We had all our emergency gear with us when we loaded Sammy into the ambulance with the EMT team, Didi, and Desiree to take her to Blue Pearl emergency hospital.”
Sammy had a minor injury on her paw and she’d lost about 10 pounds. “It's truly a miracle,” exclaims James. “Sammy spent the night at the hospital, but she did great. The staff fed her a little bit of food very slowly. And they released her the next day. Within a week, she was back her normal feeding. Sammy gained 10 pounds back and she's doing great today.”
Saying Goodbye to Lili
After Sammy left the scene for care, the next step was to get Lili out of the collapsed home and reunite her with her sister Sammy and her human family.
Jeanine from VCA remained behind at the scene and circled up with the fire department and their public information officer. She asked, "Is there any way we can get Lili out?” It was really important to everyone to get Lili out of the house. The fire department then removed her and took her to the animal hospital where her family was waiting.
“We got to spend an hour or so with Lili and Sammy,” says Didi. “It was very important for her to understand that her sister wasn't going to come back with us. She’d lost her sister. We lost our home. We lost everything. Sammy knew she was saying goodbye to Lili.”
A Total Loss and a New Beginning
After losing their Seattle home where they’d resided for nine years and all their remaining possessions to looters the night it happened, Didi and James lived with his ex-wife and her new husband for five and a half months, sleeping on a mattress on their living room floor. Today, Didi, James and Sammy reside in Hawaii in a home they’d built for their retirement years.
James stills works in IT sales and commutes to Seattle once a month. Sammy made the trip to Hawaii once and will reside there now, as the permitting process is very complex for her to fly. The Fritts have four children between them, ranging in age from 33 to 14, and their 14-year-son remains in Seattle, so that’s hard on all of them being away during his high-school years.
“We know we’re so fortunate to have another home, but we still lost everything in Seattle,” shares Didi. “We had insurance on the house, but all insurance was declined because land movement was not covered and we even had to pay to demolish it. Although it was a tragedy, the way everyone came together to help us was so inspiring!”
“And VCA was there for all of it, and it meant the world to us,” notes James. “They were empathetic, supportive and loving—and they dropped everything to be there that day. They also took care of Lili in a compassionate way. Lili came back to us in a beautiful box, along with a nice card from the whole staff.”
James and Didi are also so thankful to their rescuers. In fact, they took Sammy on thank-you visits to all their rescuers. “They were our heroes,” concludes James. “They saved our lives the first time and then came back and saved our lives the second time. And regarding life, I don't care about the little things that much anymore. I just don't. I'm just so grateful to have my family.”
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