KEY WEST MAN RUNS INTO BURNING HOME TO SAVE DOGS


Bailey Thomasson and Justin Benson moved to Key West from the Upper Keys in January. CONTRIBUTED

“The house is on fire, and we cannot get your dogs out.”

Justin Benson and Bailey Thomasson were celebrating a friend’s birthday at Lost & Found bar in Key West when their landlord called them, hysterical. A woodshop fire had jumped to the landlords’ side of the duplex and spread to Benson and Thomasson’s.

The couple, who work as a boat captain and a coral restoration practitioner, respectively, ran to their bikes, fumbling to unlock them. “I have never pedaled so hard,” Thomasson said. “We raced down Duval and approximately 1.5 miles of road to our house. From the amount of time that we watched the smoke and how big it was … I knew the dogs were going to be dead. I couldn’t imagine how they could survive something that big.”

Some believe it was Key West’s largest fire in decades. Benson described having “tunnel vision” seeing black plumes of smoke over Key West. He willed the dogs to be alive.

As they approached, he saw flames from the neighbor’s duplex going 40 feet or more into the air. There were two fire trucks and many firefighters dousing the flames. Benson ran past them. “I don’t remember thinking about it, just going in,” he said. “It was like hitting a brick wall of white smoke, where you couldn’t breathe or see anything more than a foot away. I… just covered my face and felt my way to the dog crate for Jib while yelling for Sadie.”

Sadie is a North Carolina rescue. She’s about 5 years old and helped Thomasson move to Florida to start her new career. “You hear people talk about their ‘soul dogs,’ and Sadie is definitely mine,” said Thomasson. “She’s been my best friend for the last few years.”

Jib is a rescue from Stock Island SPCA – a true Conch, Benson said. He’s 3 to 4 years old and a “hugger” who won’t let go sometimes, Thomasson added. “His smile will get you every time.”

Within a minute of entering, Benson crawled into his and Thomasson’s bedroom, where Jib’s dog crate was. By luck, that room was the last on the entire property to burst into flames. Jib was just standing there, “ears just so excited to see me,” Benson said. He felt relieved to see his dog alive. Benson also knew that Sadie would be hiding nearby.

By the time Benson reached the dogs, nearly half an hour had elapsed from the start of the fire. He grabbed Jib and called Sadie’s name. Sure enough, she emerged, and a firefighter nearby grabbed her. Everyone got out safely, and EMTs put Benson and both dogs on oxygen.

“They were both still alert and, outside of bloodshot eyes, have made an amazing recovery,” said Benson, “which we are so incredibly grateful for.”

Thomasson knew her boyfriend was going in no matter what, because “that’s just the type of person he is.” When everyone was safe and Benson started dry heaving from the smoke, she realized what he’d risked. “I was SO upset with him for going inside and putting himself through that, but so incredibly grateful because he was the reason we were sitting outside together hugging Sadie and Jib,” she said. “He’s my best friend always, but I have a completely new respect and love for him.”

The pair stayed several hours, watching everything they own go up in flames. The biggest loss was Benson’s inventory for his apparel company, Wanderlust Hats. The two-year-old passion project was gaining traction, but now everything’s gone, Thomasson said.

Firefighters used an amount of water, spraying from around 8 pm until 4 am the next day. Their home is a “total loss,” with damage from both the fire itself and the water used to extinguish it. “Outside of the clothes we had on and rescuing the two dogs, we don’t think anything else will be salvageable,” Benson said.

The Keys community countered the tragedy with support, kindness and donations. Having just moved from the Upper Keys in January, the couple didn’t know many people. However, this experience brought them “so close” to people who were complete strangers before, Thomasson said. Key West businesses 22&co and Mary Ellen’s hosted charity bingos and vibrator races to their benefit. The owner of Captain’s Corner, where Benson works, gave them a temporary place to stay.

“I really don’t have the words to say how amazing people are. The Keys/Key West community is unlike anything I could’ve imagined,” Thomasson added. “The biggest silver lining for me is how supported we feel by this community. We can’t wait to get back on our feet to a place where we can do this for others in the community who also need help.”Thomasson and Benson are looking for a permanent place to live. A GoFundMe has been established at https://www.gofundme.com/f/justin-baileys-house-fire-in-key-west to help give them a new beginning. A similar campaign exists to help their landlords at https://gofund.me/ef78107a.

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