Headlights from a Washington-bound transport van illuminated the roadway in the darkness along I-25 in the wee morning hours Saturday.
Inside, Connie Bowen, Kammie Stone and Laura Barriga of Texas were on their way to Seattle in a cargo van. In the back, 47 dogs in kennels were on a ride from kill shelters in Texas to homes throughout the northwest and to the families who had adopted them.
Bowen owns and operates the Faith and Hope Foundation, based in Corpus Christi, Texas, and was in the process of relocating the adopted dogs through the transport organization K9 Convoy. The convoy takes rescued dogs all over the country about twice a month. This fateful trip took them through Douglas.
Barriga had just taken over at the wheel for her shift after they stopped to walk one of the dogs, Max. Barriga was cruising along the northbound lanes of travel of I-25 at approximately 65 miles per hour - 15 miles per hour under the limit.
Nothing was out of the ordinary. Traffic was light at the time of night.
“I was doing a few things on my phone and was fixing to go to sleep,” Bowen recounted. She glanced in the rearview mirror and saw headlights in the distance behind them. It was just before 1 a.m., a desolate time on the interstate.
Bowen glanced down at her phone to do some last minute work, before the unexpected took place.
“All of a sudden it was a bang, a horribly loud bang. I thought somebody had put a bomb in the van,” Bowen said. “There was dust and pieces of kennels flying everywhere. It was fast and slow all at the same time.”
At mile marker 133, the van transporting 50 dogs in wire cages was rear-ended by a Plymouth Crossover SUV traveling at 80 miles per hour. The SUV had a single driver inside, who wasn’t taken to the hospital with injuries. His name was not released.
With Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers a good distance away Douglas police raced out to the interstate. DPD Sgt. Matt Schmidt responded first, along with EMS personnel.
The trio inside the pet transport van were taken to Memorial Hospital of Converse County for treatment of cuts, bruises and Bowen’s concussion. All three were wearing their seatbelts at the time of the crash, and Bowen recalled hers nearly shredding in half in the process.
Neither drugs or alcohol were involved with the incident, according to Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Patrick Maez, who said the accident is still under investigation.
Schmidt said the kennels were stacked four deep and three high in the van and were zip tied together. Firefighters with the volunteer department arrived with bolt cutters and snips to assist in getting the dogs out of the vehicle.
“We were trying to figure out what to do,” Schmidt said, as mangled kennels from the accident had dogs attempting to break loose and escape into the remote, pitch black Wyoming prairie.
“Crates were falling apart and dogs were getting out,” Schmidt said. “We had to secure them back up.”
In the midst of the chaos, personnel on scene put together a rope line from Schmidt’s push bar on the front of his patrol vehicle and ran it all the way to a nearby highway fence.
“We didn’t have enough people to care for (the dogs),” he noted.
As they went through the van, they noticed Max, who had just been on a walk minutes ago, was dead from impact. Another dog had a broken toe, but most dogs were unscathed by the accident, though obviously traumatized.
While the dog transporters were being treated for their wounds, the community of Douglas banded together in the middle of the night to find appropriate shelter to organize the dogs. Laramie Peak Humane Society (LPHS) was not an option, as many kennels were occupied and, even if the facility was completely empty, it couldn’t accommodate more than 40 dogs at once.
A suggestion was made to use the City of Douglas Annex Building along East Richards Street, since the facility had a good deal of open space available.
Drivers from Russ’s and Gibson’s towing companies, volunteer firefighters, and law enforcement started pouring into the annex with puppies in their laps and good spirits at around 2 a.m.
Numerous donors made sure the dogs had new kennels to rest in, clean bedding and plenty of dog food during their 30-hour stay in Douglas. Wire cages in the crash were piled near the entrance, serving as a constant reminder of what these dogs had been through.
As Saturday wore on, veterinarians, humane shelter board members and staff, community members and law enforcement came by the annex to take dogs on walks, love on them and make sure no additional tasks needed to be done for those who had been working for 14 to 15 hours straight.
“I’ve never had anything like this happen,” LPHS Executive Director Cathy Feezer-Jones said as she walked through the rows of puppies Saturday.
Schmidt showed up in civilian clothes off duty to check up on the dogs and take a few for a walk. He said the contrast between the organization at 3 p.m. Saturday versus the chaos at 2 a.m. was startling.
Paperwork for the dogs was blown away by the Wyoming wind at the dark crash scene. Some documents, but not all, were recovered. Dogs were scanned for microchip data, and by the end of the day the animals were in good shape to resume the rest of their journey.
Instead of going into another van, they traveled by air as Jackson-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization Dog Is My Copilot agreed at the last minute to transport the dogs free of charge.
Pilot Dr. Peter Rork initially wasn’t going to make the trip as he had other plans, but after giving it some thought, he said he opted to help out.
“I figured I’ve got the time, resources and the aircraft. . . I have to (help),” Rork said just after landing at the Converse County Airport Sunday morning in his Cessna Caravan. “Most trips are planned weeks in advance, but this is such an urgent situation.”
And so, with a few hiccups that typically come along with an urgent, unplanned event as this, 46 dogs were up in the air just after 10 a.m.
With tears welling up in her eyes as the plane took off, Bowen thanked the Douglas community for dropping everything at a moment’s notice to help complete strangers out in the middle of the night.
“This place is amazing,” she said. “The police, the paramedics, the volunteers, the vet, the humane society. . . everybody has been so nice and accommodating.”
She was also concerned about their personal dogs, which were still missing in the area.
Remy, a heeler/collie mix, ran away at the scene and was not recovered. Cheyenne, a chiweenie mix and personal pet of Stone, was taken to the hospital with Bowen and Barriga.
Bowen said an officer requested to care for the dog while she received treatment. The small dog later escaped the hospital but was located following extensive searching Monday.
Remi wasn’t so fortunate. He was hit by a vehicle and found dead along the interstate on Sunday.
Rork stopped in Missoula to drop off some of the animals, then was headed to Seattle. Paine Field in Seattle was fogged in, however, and they had to detour to Pangborn Memorial Airport in East Wenatchee, Washington.
Seattle Humane still picked up all the dogs, and they arrived back to their shelter where adopters and other animal rescue organizations met the Seattle Humane team.
Looking back, the weekend proved the kindness of Douglas for those in need is still in full force, they said.
“Everyone was more than gracious,” Feezer-Jones said. “It was amazing.”
“It’s very emotional,” Bowen added. “For everyone to come together and get them on the plane to finish off where they’re supposed to go. . .it’s been one of the worst weeks and one of the best.”