HOWARD CITY — Russell Chilson didn’t want the dog in the first place.
The family dog had died and Russell was content with the absence of a pet. But his teenage daughter Erin felt otherwise. She pleaded with her father and they ended up at Mecosta County Animal Rescue in Big Rapids.
The high-strung German shepherd mix puppy wasn’t Russell’s first pick. His first pick was walking out the door with a new owner when Russell arrived at the animal rescue. But the puppy stole Erin’s heart. Russell forked over $25 and they took the puppy home. They named her London.
One year later, London saved Erin’s life.
Monday morning emergency
Last Monday morning started out as a typical day for the Chilson family. Russell was driving his truck on the west side of Chicago. His wife Barbara left for work at Meijer in Big Rapids at 7:15 a.m. Erin, a 14-year-old freshman on Christmas break from Tri County High School, had gotten to bed late and was sleeping in. London was sleeping in the living room in the large cage she spends nights in “so she doesn’t tear the house apart,” according to Russell.
Around 8:15 a.m., Erin was awoken from her sleep by sharp barking from London. She also heard a pounding noise and thought someone was knocking on the door with an emergency. She sleepily wandered from her bedroom into the living room and ordered London to “be quiet!” so she could answer the door.
The dog refused to stop barking.
Erin saw a red glow outside the front door. She thought it was the reflection of a police siren. Then, just to the right of the front door, Erin saw flames beginning to creep through her parents’ bedroom door.
The house was on fire.
Erin’s instincts took over. She opened London’s cage, took a handful of fur and walked the dog toward the front door. She let go of London to open the door, figuring the dog would follow her, but London fled back to her cage — the safest place she knew.
Erin didn’t want to leave her dog, but she knew she had to get out of the house. She ran outside into the cold morning, wearing only a T-shirt, shorts and socks in the snow. Her cell phone had broken earlier that week, so she had no way of calling 911. She fled to her neighbors, the Toners.
The neighbors had already seen the fire and called 911. They gave Erin something warm to wear and a phone to call her parents.
But the Toners hadn’t knocked on Erin’s front door. She still has no idea what caused the pounding noise.
In the meantime, the Howard City Fire Department arrived on scene and began battling the blaze.
“It was fully involved when we got there,” said Fire Chief Randy Heckman. “It was burning good. We made the attack to the garage, which was attached to the house, to try to stop the fire from getting all the way into the house.”
With a little help from my friends
Russell received a phone call from his daughter around 8:20 a.m. as he was driving truck in Chicago.
“She said, ‘Daddy, the house is on fire,’” Russell recalled. “I told her get out of the house. She said, ‘I am out of the house,’ and then she started to cry. She said the dog was still in the house. I said, that’s fine, we’ll get the dog one way or the other.”
Russell knew exactly who he should call for help — his best friends, Paula Bean and Don and Tammy Werner.
Russell called Tammy first. She said Don had already seen the smoke and was on his way to the scene.
The Werners, who own DTW Transport in Howard City, were more than just curious onlookers to the smoke — Tammy’s parents, Robert and Norma Bean, used to live in the house that was on fire. The Beans, both age 66, resided at 106 White St. on the north end of Howard City until their untimely deaths in October 2008. They were abducted from their home in the middle of the night and later shot to death in a gravel pit in Oakfield Township by two local men looking for drugs and money. It was a horrific crime that shocked the entire community.
Russell used to drive truck for Robert and Norma Bean — they were like parents to him. After their deaths, Russell ended up purchasing their home in an estate sale, with the blessing of his best friends, who also happen to be the Beans’ children and their spouses — Tim and Paula Bean and Don and Tammy Werner. It was one good thing that came out of the tragedy.
Don Werner arrived at the Monday morning fire and encouraged Erin to sit in his pick-up truck where she could watch the firefighting efforts from a warm and safe place.
In the meantime, Russell had called Paula Bean, who immediately left her job at Anderson Insurance Agency in Howard City and drove to the house as well. By this time, firefighters had knocked down most of the flames and Paula ventured into the house to try to rescue London. The frightened dog was still in her cage barking and began growling when Paula approached.
Paula called Russell and told him London refused to budge and she was afraid to reach inside the cage.
“This is where it gets absolutely crazy,” said Russell of that day’s events. “Paula asked me, ‘Can you talk to her?’ She put me on speaker phone. I said, ‘London, we’ve got to go outside.’”
And out the front door the dog went.
Heckman said a fire investigator ruled the cause of the blaze as an electrical issue. The garage burned to the ground, but the house is remarkably undamaged, other than some scorching in the bedroom.
“They’re lucky, really lucky,” said Heckman of the Chilson family. “Another couple minutes and the whole house would have been lost.”
Russell thinks it’s more than luck.
“I am a firm Christian and I absolutely believe that God had absolute control,” he said. “He talked to my dog who woke up my daughter. I am absolutely confident that God told my dog, ‘Wake Erin up and don’t stop until she’s safe.’ I am absolutely amazed at what happened.
“My daughter is safe, my dog is safe,” he said tearfully. “I lost some significant things in the garage and the bedroom, but those are just things.”
“If she hadn’t started barking, I probably wouldn’t have woken up,” Eric declared with wide eyes.
“My rescue dog I paid $25 for, she paid for herself on Monday,” her grateful father added with a smile.