At the scene, one of the firefighters told us, "One step at a time. Don't worry about the next step until it's time to take the next step." That was perhaps the best advice anyone could have given us for handling a crisis.
The first thing was to rescue any surviving animal. This happened in phases. The initial round made by firefighters, the next round by Tim and I after the scene was deemed safe, then another round by employees after the building was released, and now the final round as we clean up. Surprisingly, a few more fish and reptiles have been discovered alive under the debris, including a red foot tortoise that Jeremy found today on the sales floor! Mariah named her Hope and she is now living in our backyard with the rest of the small tortoises.
We feel like the next step was to face the reality of what happened and accept it. During this phase we internalized unbearable self-blame that we had failed our community. The biggest issue is regarding the use of automatic sprinkler systems. This is a widely controversial subject and quite complicated. Most city codes do not require sprinkler systems in businesses so it is very difficult to convince property owners to install them for their tenants. Accidental caged pet drownings caused by faulty sprinklers (in homes, animal housing facilities, etc.) only add to the controversy. And the fact that decades go by with no incident merely reinforces the rationale behind not having sprinkler systems in place. It reminds me of a school bus with no seatbelts – which seems perfectly fine until it’s not – but yet they still have no seatbelts.
After extensive conversation with the experts we decided that when we rebuild, we’ll be using a more comprehensive fire prevention system, regardless of code and regardless of expense. Our compassionate fire chief even assured me that he would help with the design. We were told, quite frankly, that a better system is a great idea but that we need to accept the fact than even the best system available will not prevent every fire but it would certainly help. To be completely honest, even if no system would have prevented this particular fire, we feel like we let 27 years of no incident lull us into some sort of complacency regarding due diligence of fire prevention. In fact, we really hadn’t checked into the latest in fire prevention in a long time. Even when recent animal deaths in a local facility fire renewed our conversations regarding fire prevention we still did not take action. Every day I say things like do it now, carpe diem, later never comes yet we didn’t push forward. We let all those years of uneventful fire inspections serve as affirmation that our system was adequate when in reality, we should have dug a little deeper.
Maybe we can’t prevent every fire and perhaps even the best new system won’t prevent the kind of electrical inferno we just had but Pet World is no ordinary business nor should we follow ordinary standards. We exceed industry standards in everything we do and fire prevention should be no different. When the fire was ruled an accident many people asked if we were relieved to know it wasn’t our fault. The hard answer? No. Because maybe this fire wasn't our fault but another fire could have been. People trust us and this tragic loss of life has exposed an area in which we did not meet our own standards of exceeding the minimum standards in every way. The truth we must now face is that it’s not enough to meet the minimum requirements in fire prevention; we must exceed the standard. That’s the Pet World way – the key to our success. It’s not about the city code; it’s about our code. We have a building full of animals and children, the most precious lives in this world. Every possible safety measure must be put in place, whether it is required or not, so that’s what we plan to do. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed this outcome, but it could certainly change one in the future.
The second half of this next step was accepting that the fire really happened and nothing could change that. No amount of denial, pointing fingers, or what if scenarios could change what happened. That’s where the vigil came into play.
We feared that a vigil would be too dramatic, somehow creating more pain, but the public insisted. You all needed it and, little did we realize, so did we. We needed to say goodbye, pay our respects and let you pay yours. We needed to see your faces – all of your hundreds of faces – to fully appreciate how much Pet World means to this community. Our employees needed to see how much their work really matters. We needed to cry and release and I sincerely believe we couldn’t have done it without the community lifting us up. After the vigil we were finally able to let go. For that we are all very grateful.
This morning we woke up changed. Not healed, but with a new resolve. Over the course of 12 hours today we were able to clear out parts of the building, begin a tedious loss inventory, find another survivor (which is why we are doing this ourselves), decide on how to handle the pending donations (more on that tomorrow), secure a temporary location in the same shopping center to set up headquarters and a mini Pet World with basic, hard to find pet needs, and launch an online contact center so you regain easy access to us. You are telling us you feel lost and we want to be there for you. Very soon we’ll launch a contact page on our web site for all your pet needs and hard to ask questions. Within two weeks we will open a temporary location in the former Hume Music space between WheatState Pizza and Bikram Yoga. All of this happened from a collaborative effort inspired by our community.
You know what else? While I wrote this, some kind soul left flowers and the perfect sympathy card on our porch. Wow.
Only in Lawrence, Kansas. Seriously. This place is magic.