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14 cats die in fire despite efforts

A Spokane woman escaped her burning home Saturday morning but suffered first- and second-degree burns after running back inside to try to save her cats.

Phyllis Sisseck lost 14 feline friends. Three cats – Zee, Broadview and Big Guy – survived. Many of the cats were strays who periodically stopped by for food, water and a warm place to sleep, but they all had names.

“My mother lived for her cats,” said Tiel Vogt, Sisseck’s daughter. “She couldn’t care less about the house.”

The 58-year-old woman lived alone in the home at 2228 W. Crown. Sisseck’s cats and the strays came and went through a “kitty window,” Vogt said. The strays would come in, and her mother would have them spayed or neutered, then let them go.

Spokane fire officials think the blaze was caused by an electrical problem, possibly a worn or overloaded extension cord plugged into a space heater.

The utility-grade extension cord was two years old, but “everything degrades with time,” Battalion Chief Bruce Moline said. “Wear and tear takes its toll.”

The fire started in the basement, where the space heater and extension cord were, and spread up the staircase to the top floor.

“Most of the home was spared, but there was smoke damage throughout,” Moline said. The estimated damage to the home and its contents was $13,000.

But for Sisseck, the loss could not be measured in dollars.

Sisseck told her daughter she awoke about 6:30 a.m. Saturday to the sound of breaking glass. When she opened her door on the second floor of the two-story home, she was confronted with smoke and flames, Vogt said.

Sisseck smashed out her bedroom window and crawled down a ladder. Then she used a hidden house key to open the front door and ran back inside to help the cats escape, her daughter said.

“She brought four of them out and did mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” Vogt said. “Two of them got up and walked away.”

Spokane firefighters were called to the home about 6:45 a.m., Moline said. Sisseck was outside when crews arrived. She was taken to Sacred Heart Hospital with second-degree burns to her hands, first-degree burns to her face and smoke inhalation.

Sisseck’s house didn’t have working smoke detectors.

“She was real lucky that she woke up when the glass broke,” Moline said. “We need to remind everyone to have smoke detectors on each floor.”

Another safety reminder: “If you get out of your house safely, don’t go back in,” Moline said. “That’s our job.”

Fortunately, Sisseck’s burns were minor to moderate, Moline said. She was released from the hospital Saturday morning.

With the help of family members, Sisseck returned to her home to search for cats – living and dead.

They found three adult cats that died and laid them on the porch.

“Oh, my God; oh, my God. You guys, this one’s alive,” Vogt squealed from inside the darkened home.

Vogt wore a smile as she and her son, Tim, emerged with a black-and-gray tabby.

The cat hunkered at the back of the carrier, soaking wet and covered in soot.

Vogt comforted him with gentle strokes, but she had to break the news to him, “You lost a lot of friends today.”