When Klyde Comstock set out against the pouring rain on Jan. 29 in search of his missing dog, he recognized a familiar whimpering coming from far beneath him. Looking down, he saw that what had been a grassy patch of his yard a day before had since opened up into a 20-foot-deep sinkhole. Jesse, his 17-year-old collie, was trapped at the bottom.
The 42-year-old barber ran inside and called 911. Two fire-engine crews soon arrived at the Southeast Portland home and took stock of the situation. The hole, just less than 2 feet wide, descended at an angle into what looked like an old septic tank. They couldn't even see Jesse. Given the terrible weather and the risk of a cave-in, they decided nothing could be done for the dog. "This was just a terrible situation that wasn't worth risking a human life," Deputy Fire Chief Jim Klum said later. "The guys were really upset."
Comstock covered the hole to keep the rain out and went to bed, thinking that was the end of that.
But Comstock's housemate, David Crossgrove, was upset that Jesse was being left to die. He gave his girlfriend a green light to call anyone who could help. Two days later, Comstock got a knock on the door from an unexpected--and unwelcome--ally: a volunteer from In Defense of Animals.
The animal-rights group beckoned Multnomah County Animal Control, the Oregon Humane Society and several others to Comstock's home. With a city camera used to check sewer lines, they found that Jesse was still alive, pinned under a pile of rubble. But Comstock didn't want their help.
"These animal-rights people are Nazis," Comstock says. "They turned it into a nightmare."
Gary Hendel, director of Multnomah County Animal Control, begs to differ. "I could have cited him for cruelty or neglect," says Hendel, who took charge at the scene. "You have to rescue that animal. It's not a kid in a well, but if you can do it safely, you ought to do it."
By late evening on Jan. 31, the rescuers had a plan. They would use a backhoe donated by the Humane Society to pry some of the soil out of the way. Then city road workers would insert a steel cage to prevent a cave-in and crawl down to save Jesse. The equipment was there, the crew was ready and Comstock was willing to let them work. But they hit a snag.
None of the city employees would lift a finger until they got permission from their bosses. Getting frantic, Hendel called around to fire chiefs and department directors, each one unwilling to risk the liability. Finally, at 11 pm, he was told he would have to call City Commissioner Erik Sten at home. Preferring to let sleeping politicians lie, he decided to call it a night.
The workers hooked a 20-foot exhaust hose to Comstock's dryer and directed the warm air down into the hole. When they returned the next morning, a quick check with the sewer camera revealed that Jesse had died during the night.
Hendel acknowledges that the effort to extract Jesse was flawed from the start. "But," he adds, "if we had rescued that dog, I probably would have had to put it down anyway."
All of which makes Comstock wish Hendel and the animal-rights activists had never gotten involved in the first place.
"I think the fire department did an incredible job the first night," he says. "The rest was a waste of personnel. I mean, it ain't like there was a human down there."