The last time a fire truck went racing toward Bluffton Police officer Doug Armstead’s house, it was engulfed in flames.
Firefighters were able to extinguish the Dec. 2 blaze, but couldn’t salvage the Grays Hill house where Armstead’s family was staying or save his dog, 3-year-old Anni, the only family member that was home that Friday morning. Armstead himself carried Anni, his German shepherd sweetheart, outside.
This Saturday, red and blue flashing lights again spilled over the wall’s of Armstead’s home, his new one. But these firefighters were there to make his family a little more whole. Aboard the engine were Santa and Mrs. Claus, carrying a fuzzy German shepherd puppy.
Athena was lighter than the dog Armstead lost. Fuzzier too, and with floppy chestnut ears.
She was a surprise for the Armsteads, who’d told a friend and dog breeder Lottie Campanella that they were ready for a new pet but had no idea she would enlist the Burton Fire District to deliver the puppy, and so soon.
They also didn’t know Campanella, a fire department assistance support team member, and her husband, Burton firefighter Eric Swanson, would transform into the Clauses for the occasion — right down to her velvety-red cap and his snow-white beard.
When the engine arrived as Armstead and his family were picnicing and working on their new home’s remodel, Armstead’s partner on the force told him one of the kids had burned themselves. But when the clan got outside, his kids began shouting.
“I saw the puppy and I just kind of latched onto her,” Armstead said Wednesday. “I heard my son say, ‘Is she ours?’ and they said ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ I think that’s when I started crying.”
A video of the delivery shows Armstead hoisting the dog over his shoulder and burying his face in her fur. His kids huddle around, reaching for the dog’s paws and ears and tail.
“It is nice seeing them all happy again,” Armstead said.
While Campanella and Swanson work with the fire department, and were able to use an engine for the night, the gift was not sponsored by the department, she noted.
“Some of the guys at the (department) were like, ‘Great, now people are going to think we drive around handing out puppies at Christmas!” Campanella joked on Tuesday.
Athena — originally named “Big Bertha” — was the latest show of support from the Burton and Bluffton communities since the fire, which destroyed the home of Armstead’s in-laws, Bonnie and Joe Barth, where the family was staying temporarily. They are now living in a small apartment until renovations are complete at their new home.
Armstead said he’s thankful to the Burton and Bluffton fire departments, his Bluffton Police coworkers, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, Cross Schools and the many others who have offered their support or donated to an online GoFundMe for the family that raised more than $10,000 in just nine days.
It’s a sign, he thinks, that people still care about their law enforcement and emergency management personnel and appreciate what they do.
“There’s no way I could write enough thank you notes to everyone,” he said. “I’m very humbled by this whole thing.”