Rowan Animal Clinic staff vows to rebuild practice

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 22, 2012

SALISBURY — Gail Lowe probably summed it up best for her husband, R.B., after the Rowan Animal Clinic fire Sunday.
These aren’t close to the exact words, but basically Gail told him that all the animals he had saved and made better over 35-plus years, all the families he and the people working with him had gone the extra mile for and all the love and patience built into the veterinary practice were still there.
“That didn’t burn up,” Gail said.
It’s something R.B., distraught with the rest of his family and staff over the loss of nine dogs in the fire, had to hear. After the numbing events of Sunday, he also required getting back to what he does — work.
Monday, Dr. R.B. Lowe made scheduled, large-animal veterinary visits to two farms. Tuesday, he spent much of the day on two more “house calls.”
“We’re good,” Gail said.
Her two sons, Dr. Greg Lowe and Nick Lowe, the office manager, have energetically taken charge at the charred and ruined clinic site, leading the business back to life in baby steps for now.
Around them are the other doctors and staff working from makeshift tables, wearing firemen’s helmets if they walk into certain areas and writing down all the equipment, materials and supplies lost in the fire.
It may seem strange, this depressing inventory, but it’s quite necessary for insurance purposes before the heavy equipment can come in and clear the whole site.
Dr. Cynthia Almond, who has worked at the clinic since 2000, had to keep imagining herself back in the pharmacy and seeing all the medications in front of her.
As she remembered each one, she jotted down the name.
From her cardboard table in the driveway, Almond paused once and held up a piece of melted metal retrieved from the ruins.
“I had a bracelet in my office — I wonder if this is it,” she said.
Outpouring of support
The clinic employed 20 full- and part-time people. Many of them arrive on the fire site in the morning and stay until dark. Friends from the community have provided breakfast and lunch every day.
Gail Lowe, a retired teacher, has seen the pep talk she gave to her husband paid forward in how people have responded after the fire.
“It has just been overwhelming,” she said. “… Quite a network.”
Gail Lowe has been making a list of all the calls and emails from people offering things the clinic probably will need down the road.
Other veterinarians and animal clinics, drug companies, insurance adjusters, law enforcement and fire departments — the Lowe family can’t thank them enough, Greg Lowe says.
The Lowe family never thought once about giving up and not building back. And until that new place is ready — on the same site — the Lowes intend to find a place for a temporary clinic and go about this very personal business of taking care of animals.
That’s why the fire hurt so bad.
Even though 20 lives, jobs and incomes were directly affected, the Rowan Animal Clinic owners’ and staff’s first concerns were the nine dogs lost.
On the scene
As Greg Lowe drove east on U.S. 70 from his home in Cleveland early Sunday morning, he could see the smoke rising up and covering the cell tower next to the clinic.
His father had called him and said the clinic’s fire alarm and burglar alarm were sounding. At first, Greg tried to persuade himself the smoke ahead of him might be coming from the big Performance Fibers plant.
“But the closer I got the more I realized it was what I thought it was,” he said.
Firefighters already were on the scene and establishing water lines when Greg arrived. Fire and smoke poured from the eaves of the building in front.
“Otherwise, the building looked perfect,” Greg recalled.
He ran to the back left of the structure toward the rear door leading into the boarding area for animals.
“Are the dogs out?” he yelled. “Let’s get the dogs out.”
But he was met by a half dozen men holding him back from rushing in. Not having a key, Greg said they needed to knock a wall down to get to the boarded dogs.
An officer stepped forward and expertly pried the back door open, but the smoke billowing toward Lowe and the firefighters was too intense.
“They backed out and told me not to go in,” he said.
The building’s metal roof sealed up the building like the lid on a Tupperware container, Greg described, and pushed dense smoke into the kennel.
Greg’s next order of business was to keep his father, R.B., from going in. Another fireman tried again, but was pulled back. R.B. Lowe kept saying they had to get the dogs out, that they could not be burned.
“They (the dogs) probably were already gone,” Greg Lowe said Tuesday afternoon.
Not much good emerges from the debris and darkness left by the fire, except for a few things.
A silver lining
While virtually all paper records were lost, most information related to clients’ animals is part of a digital record that is intact.
Rowan Animal Clinic usually boarded many more animals on the weekends, especially around holidays, but this weekend in February was an exception.
Some weekends could see 30 to 40 dogs and cats having overnight stays at the clinic. But this time there were only nine dogs — and no cats.
The clinic doctors and staff also found a modicum of comfort — if you can call it that — in knowing the dogs that perished in the fire were not burned.
They died of smoke inhalation, and the clinic was able to return the bodies to the owners.
The clinic will hold a private memorial service for the dogs Thursday with the families. Nick Lowe also has visions for a memorial dog park on the property as part of the new construction.
Greg Lowe said his father, grandfather and his grandfather’s friend built the first building on this spot 35 years ago. It was added onto three times and spread out over 5,200 to 5,700 square feet. Greg Lowe wasn’t sure of the exact size.
“The plans burned in the fire,” he explained.
The property has 24-hour security while the cleanup continues. Yellow tape surrounds things, trying to keep out the curious.
Greg Lowe, 28, said he was told to take things one day at a time, “and I’m trying to do that.”
While she wasn’t able to save her bracelet, Dr. Almond sifted through remains of her office and retrieved a framed memento given to her by a close relative.
The glass was cracked, and it showed signs of water damage. But the message, attributed to the late Dr. Albert Schweitzer, was intact.
It was a prayer for animals — and the people who care for them.
Contact Mark Wineka as 704-797-4263 or mwineka@