Pet World owners vow to rebuild after fire destroys store, kills animals

Vigil scheduled for 8:20 p.m. Wednesday

In the wake of a Memorial Day fire that killed an undisclosed number of animals and injured dozens more, members of the Lawrence community flocked Tuesday to the burned ruin of Pet World, 711 W. 23rd St., to mourn and show support for the business that brought them so much joy. A candlelight vigil at the store was scheduled for Wednesday evening.

A fire around 12:30 p.m. Monday filled the store with thick, black smoke, suffocating animals inside. Lawrence emergency crews responded to the scene soon after, where they reported heavy smoke escaping the rear of the structure, Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical spokeswoman Division Chief Eve Tolefree said. The store had been closed for the Memorial Day holiday.

The fire broke out in the store’s backroom, “likely near the electrical panels where electrical service enters the building,” co-owner Sherry Emerson wrote in a statement on the business’ website Tuesday. Fire Department officials say they have yet to determine a cause, but investigators remained on scene throughout Tuesday.

A makeshift memorial takes shape outside Pet World, Tuesday, May 26, 2015, a day after smoke and fire at the store resulted in the deaths of many small animals.

Emerson said she would “not be announcing a death toll any time soon,” but that most of the animals died quickly by fumes and smoke, rather than in flames. No dogs were in the building, Emerson said, but one adoptable kitten from the Lawrence Humane Society died in the fire. The store bird, Fletcher, and store gecko, Queen Latifah, also died.

Many dead snakes have been removed from the store during the firefighters’ investigation and will be buried at Pet World’s tortoise farm north of Lawrence, Emerson said. The tortoises were moved to the farm prior to the fire.

About 100 bystanders watched firefighters tackle the flames Monday, as more than 30 Pet World staff members and local veterinarians worked to resuscitate several reptiles rescued from the building. On Tuesday, more people returned to pay their respects to the animals that perished inside.

Some left handwritten notes, drawings and flower bouquets in memory of the animals — from hermit crabs to cockatoos — that inhabited the store over the years.

“We would love to come to Pet World today,” one child wrote. “Sorry animals dide! (sic) I’m sad,” wrote another.

Wednesday morning, Emerson announced the store would host community members for a vigil Wednesday evening.

“At your request, we’re having a sunset vigil tonight outside Pet World. 8:20-8:47pm. One minute per year. Please bring a candle & join us,” said the message on the store’s social media accounts.

Established 27 years ago by Emerson’s husband, Tim Emerson, Pet World has been a community staple for animal and educational needs. Long before the days of national pet-store chains and hypoallergenic, gluten-free dog food, Pet World offered a unique experience for local children yearning for a critter to snuggle.

“Tim can never forget how he felt as a child when he and his young friends were refused entry to their local pet store and not allowed to hold the animals,” Emerson wrote in her statement. “We have been blessed with the ability to connect children to nature. That’s what matters most to us.”

Southwest Middle School teacher Pat Salvatore said that for her students the store was more than just a pet store, but a hands-on educational experience.

“Over my 24 years (as a Lawrence teacher) I’ve had many students do internships there or worked with the pet because they had an interest in animals,” Salvatore said. “I don’t know if you went to (national chain stores) if they would provide that service for the community.”

Twelve-year-old Grace Farney was one such “junior volunteer” who began helping out at the store about three months ago, she said. As a junior volunteer, she got to explore her growing interest in animals by playing with the store’s ferrets and socializing the birds.

“When I first heard the news, all I could think about was the animals,” Farney said. “I feel great devastation of what has happened. Pet World has been so special to me since the moment I walked in there.”

It’s stories like Farney’s and Salvatore’s that are keeping the owners going, Emerson said in her statement. When their life’s work literally went up in flames, it would have been tempting to walk away. But after talking about the children who hugged Sherry Emerson at the fire Monday and “assured (her) they would help (them) rebuild,” the couple vowed to bring Pet World back.

“When we were finally alone and it all sank in, Tim and I were able to discuss our options… All he cared about were the kids and what they would do without Pet World in their lives,” Sherry Emerson wrote. “He told me, without a doubt, we will rebuild and bring Pet World back to the Lawrence community as soon as possible.”

It’s unclear how long it will take to rebuild.

Also in her statement Tuesday, Emerson a warning for kind-hearted Pet World supporters wanting to help: Pet World is not accepting donations at this time, and any groups purporting to be raising money for the store’s rebuilding are unauthorized.