Veterinary clinic recovering from deadly fire

Rebuilding can take years

June 19, 2015 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

Photo by Megan Davis
Flowers left at the Kimbrough Animal Clinic commemorate the 38 pets lost in a fire on June 9 that destroyed the clinic. The owner plans to rebuild.

memorial page went up right away on Facebook. A candlelight vigil followed. Someone brought a therapy dog from Austin, a drive of nearly five hours. The local newspaper is publishing a remembrance on Sunday. Donations are flowing in.

Grieving, support and recovery are well underway in Longview, Texas, where an electrical fire on the night of June 9 destroyed the Kimbrough Animal Hospital, killing 38 of 40 pets inside.

The 4,000-square-foot clinic is a total loss. The owner, Dr. Kenneth Kimbrough, plans to rebuild. In the meantime, he is running the hospital out of Gindy’s Pet Express, his wife’s grooming business next door.

“Everybody is calling, and I'm thanking everyone for their support,” Kimbrough said. “Their thoughts and prayers help. They ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ as they hug me, and I say, ‘That alone helps.’ ”

One of the hardest things was notifying the owners of the pets who died. It was logistically difficult as well as emotionally because client phone numbers were lost in the fire. But the clinic managed to reach everyone within 2½ days.

Among the animals who perished were a pair of Jack Russell puppies, a kitten and two clinic cats. “My staff loved their kitties,” Kimbrough said. “One would sit on your lap even if there was a dog around.”

The only survivors of the blaze were two boxers belonging to the same family. They were at Kimbrough Animal Hospital for their first-ever experience as boarders. The dogs were in critical but stable condition a few days after the fire, according to a news report.

As the clinic owner and staff push to get back on their feet, many in the community are pitching in. Other clinics are filling prescriptions for Kimbrough clients. A veterinarian who closed a clinic last year offered equipment. Drug manufacturer representatives are donating equipment, as well.

The Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation gave $2,500 and put out a call for further donations, which it promises to match up to $10,000.

Kimbrough said he isn’t surprised by the support.

“In East Texas, you get tons of food and tons of hugs,” he said. “People just come out from the woodwork. We are traditionally well taken care of Texas. In general, it’s very Christian, and churches turn out in droves.”

Ongoing support is an important element of rebuilding and recovery, which can take years, in the experience of veterinarians who have been through a similar loss.

Thoughts from one who’s been there

Near Salisbury, North Carolina, rebuilding the Rowan Animal Clinic following a fire in 2012 took a year and a half, according to Dr. Greg Lowe.

The family business originally was built by Lowe’s grandparents nearly 40 years ago. Lowe considered the building a part of his late grandmother, so losing it was like losing her once more. His father was devastated; Lowe said he hopes never again to see the expression that was on his father’s face the night of the fire.

The blaze left nine dogs dead.

"All the clients were (emotionally) destroyed by it,” Lowe recalled. “They were upset but not angry, necessarily. They were gracious to us.”

One client lost multiple dogs, and he still brings pets to Rowan. Lowe paid the client more than the insurance reimbursement for some of the dogs because the animals had special training. For example, one had been trained specifically to guard the client’s children.

The clinic loss, including pet loss, was covered well by insurance. In rebuilding, the owners opted to enlarge the hospital at their expense. Originally 5,500 square feet, Rowan Animal Clinic is now 8,700 square feet. Lowe thinks of it as a phoenix, a mythical bird that rises from the ashes of a funeral pyre.

The cause of the fire initially was suspected as arson but later was found to be an electrical problem.

That the fire originated from some internal building flaw nags. “I’ve tried to think what we could have done differently,” Lowe said. “We had regular maintenance of the building. Everything we did was standard."

In retrospect, Lowe said he wishes he had noted details of what he saw that night, and written them down. Investigators asked about whether this window or that door was broken. He wishes the clinic had kept closer track of its inventory, as it does now.

The clinic was closed for five weeks. During that time, the Lowe family made sure to involve staff with the reconstruction — cleaning, painting, moving equipment — and tried to keep up morale by hosting lunch and a bowling night. Staff and associates received their regular pay from the insurance company. Local veterinarians helped out; one clinic served as their pharmacy.

The Lowes decided to raise money for a half-acre memorial dog park, which they hope will open later this year.

While Lowe acknowledged that counseling to cope with the disaster would have been helpful, he said family members who shared the business were able to lean on each other. He believes the fire left no long-term after-effects on his family or employees.

That’s not always the case. A solo practitioner who lost a clinic to a fire five years ago is suffering from what he believes is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He asked not to be identified because of the lingering trauma.

"I should have gone to counseling," he said. "It still weighs on me. For the first few months, I didn't sleep more than one or two hours a night. I think it affects me more now than then. Now I'm paranoid — that's part of PTSD. I'm feeling like I want to retire and not have the responsibility."

In other respects, the veterinarian’s experience was similar to Lowe’s and Kimbrough’s. The fire stemmed from an electrical problem. Insurance paid for everything, including compensation for the deceased pets. Clients, other veterinarians and the larger community showed support. His inbox overflowed with sympathetic emails by the hundreds.

To try to address his ongoing worries, the veterinarian installed an expensive security system and camera.

Lowe did the same. “I have cameras everywhere. This is a fortress,” he said. “I know everything that happens here. I will never not know again, I'll tell you that much.”

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