Dorella Tuckwiller, president and founder of local animal rescue group Itty Bitty Kitty Committee, crawled head-first into a storm drain pipe beneath a Virginia Avenue driveway and retrieved the barely breathing kitten. A small crowd cheered as West Side volunteer firefighter Galeena Wileman pulled Tuckwiller from the pipe by a rope tied to her ankle and Tuckwiller held the wet, shivering creature in her hand.
Tuckwiller shared an emotional moment with the shivering kitten, kissing it on the forehead before handing it off to firefighters for first aid.
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“My biggest fear was I was going to lose him,” Tuckwiller said. “If I had dropped him… that was my biggest fear was not being able to hold him above the water and dropping him.
“I don’t climb in storm drains all the time.”
Residents called 911 after hearing kittens crying in the pipe, which was backing up with water as rainstorms rolled through the area. Three kittens were trapped by the rising waters; one was whisked to safety by its mother, while a second drowned.
Tuckwiller frantically posted to the Itty Bitty Kitty Committee’s Facebook page to ask for help, and a handful of volunteers rushed to the scene. Kaitlyn Cater tried to coax the last kitten out of the pipe with a fishing net. When the kitten retreated, another resident retrieved a pool net with a longer pole.
The kitten continued evading rescuers as the water continued to rise, eventually backing up toward the other end of the pipe, which was covered by a grate.
A West Side Volunteer Fire Department crew arrived about 40 minutes into the rescue effort, and firefighters quickly devised a plan to dam the roadside ditch and pump water out of the ditch.
“I made a dam and then we took the hard section off the truck and sucked the water out,” Wileman said. “Usually we use the hard section for fire fighting operations, so it was great that we had that, and this truck is a brand new truck that we just got, so it’s awesome.”
The water began slowly receding once firefighters turned the pump on. Wileman tied a rope to Tuckwiller’s ankle, and once there was enough of an air bubble inside the pipe, she laid on her back and pushed herself into the filthy pipe.
Moments later, Tuckwiller grabbed the kitten and was pulled to safety after getting stuck beneath the water briefly.
Wileman whisked the kitten to her vehicle and gave it oxygen using a tiny oxygen mask the West Side Volunteer Fire Department recently received from Air For Paws, a nonprofit organization that gives first responders nationwide animal rescue kits and training to use the equipment. According to Air For Paws’ website, it has distributed 678 animal resuscitation kits across the country; only eight were given to fire departments in West Virginia.
The West Side Volunteer Fire department has five animal resuscitation kits and the Grafton Fire Department has three.
“All of our trucks on the West Side Volunteer Fire Department have these special pet masks,” Wileman said. “Usually you use them for structure fire fighting — if you can save somebody’s pet, that’s better than saving their homes, you know? I recommend every fire department in the state of West Virginia get those masks, because literally the little guy wasn’t breathing too good, and we gave him some oxygen and now he’s perked up, Once they get him warm and to a vet, he’ll be fine.”
Tuckwiller said the kitten will go up for adoption once he has been treated by a veterinarian and fully recovers. Though the kitten is expected to live, she said the situation likely would have ended tragically without the efforts and ingenuity of volunteers and the firefighters.
“I had about this much space between my head and the water,” Tuckwiller said, showing about six inches of space between her hands.
“Everybody who came together has been amazing, if the fire department hadn’t been pumping the water out, I don’t think there would have been enough space in there to get to him. Every single person standing right here who shared what I posted, who responded, everyone is a hero. It takes a little army to save one little life.”