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Coy Freeman was fast asleep on his couch early Thursday when he felt the urgent and familiar nuzzle of his beloved American Bully, Rello.
“He automatically knew there was danger,” said the visually impaired Freeman, 44, late Thursday afternoon as he sat on a porch across the street hours after a blaze ravaged several homes, including his, early that morning in the 4900 block of South Princeton Avenue in the city’s Fuller Park neighborhood.
As the hazel-eyed, protective and usually mild-mannered Rello (rhymes with “yellow”) curled up on a sidewalk and gently panted a few feet away, Freeman detailed the frenzied moments.
The 6-year-old dog normally gives Freeman a “slight nudge’’ when he has to go to the bathroom every morning, but Thursday was different.
“This time he took his muzzle and threw my arm up real high,” said Freeman, whose uncle Bernard Stratton and several other dogs and puppies, which he called his “babies,” were also inside the home.
“That’s when I woke up,” Freeman said. Meanwhile, Rello scampered to the door and frantically began scratching.
Molten debris slammed into the house and smoke quickly seeped inside, including the bedroom where the remaining eight dogs were.
“I got him (Rello), and I got as many puppies as I could grab and we got them out the door,” said Freeman.
Freeman tried to go back for the rest, but conditions were too dangerous.
More than 150 firefighters were called to the Princeton Avenue address about 3:30 a.m. for the suspicious blaze that Larry Langford, a spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department, said was thought to have originated on the rear porch of a vacant 2.5-story building at 4920 S. Princeton Ave.
For more than two hours they used 45 pieces of equipment to attack the fire, which spread to homes on either side of the vacant building, Langford said in an email.
No humans were injured, according to Langford, who said no working smoke detectors had been located as of Thursday morning.
Eventually, Freeman was able to rescue several of the pups, but four had already died: two puppies and two adults.
“It’s tragic,” Freeman said. “I will never be the same after this.”
As he grieved, calling Rello a “hero,” Freeman said the dog is the reason he and his uncle were uninjured.
“At the time, everybody was sleeping. We didn’t even know anything about a fire, but he smelled the smoke.”
As the sun dipped lower, Freeman worried where he, his uncle and the pups were going to live. Cars slowly rolled past and friends called out words of support. “Hey, hey, how you doing?” one said.
“All right — I love you too. Thank you!” Freeman yelled.
“I ain’t doing too good, but I’m doing, though,” he told another well-wisher. “Health-wise I’m here, but mentally I’m not, though.”
This was actually the second time Rello has alerted Freeman to a fire. About two years ago, the basement of the home in front of theirs began burning after a repairman had accidentally left something on.
Back then, Rello woke him up “the same way,” Freeman recalled. “It wasn’t a nudge to go use the bathroom it was a: ‘Get the h— up! We gotta get out of here!’”
“Rello saved me, man. He saved my life.”