On December 1, Bluffton, South Carolina police officer Doug Armstead and his wife and five children suffered a devastating loss when the Grays Hill house where the family was staying went up in flames. Along with losing the home, they also lost Anni, their 3-year-old German shepherd, the only family member at home that Friday morning when the fire broke out. Doug himself carried Anni outside, but it was too late to save her.
Burton Firefighter Eric Swanson’s wife Lottie Campenella was at the scene of the fire and witnessed Armstead’s reaction as he learned his beloved Anni didn’t survive and knew she had to help. Lottie serves on the Firefighter Assistance Support Team and decided to speak with a neighbor of the Armsteads to find out if it was too soon for the family to add a new puppy. When she learned the family wanted another dog, Lottie and Eric got to work.
On December 10, red and blue flashing lights announced the arrival of a German shepherd puppy named Athena, courtesy of Santa and Mrs. Claus (AKA Eric and Lottie). Athena arrived via Burton Fire District and was a surprise for the Armstead family, who were busy picnicking and working on their new home. In order to get the family outside, Doug’s partner on the police force told him one of the kids had burned themselves.
The Armstead children began shouting and Doug broke down in tears as he clung to their newest family member. In an interview with The Island Packet, Doug described meeting Athena for the first time
“I saw the puppy and I just kind of latched onto her. I heard my son say, ‘Is she ours?’ and they said ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ I think that’s when I started crying.”
Doug’s in-laws, Bonnie and Joe Barth, lost their home in the fire, and the Armstead family lost their precious dog. The Barth family is currently living in a small apartment until renovations are complete at their new home. A GoFundMe web page for the family raised more than $10,000 in just nine days.
Doug believes the support that was given by 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 shows people still care about law enforcement and emergency management personnel and appreciate what they do.
Lottie wanted to note the fire engine was on loan for the night, but the gift of Athena wasn’t sponsored by the department, nor is the fire department driving around handing out puppies at Christmas.
A heartwarming video of the Armstead family meeting Athena for the first time can be viewed here.