A Shiloh, Tennessee family of six, including three children age five and younger, recently escaped a blaze that destroyed their home – and they owe their survival to their Great Dane, Titan.
“If it wasn’t for him, we would be dead,” says Erich Buehring of the family’s four-legged hero. “Just a few more minutes. That’s how close it was.”
Buehring and wife Sandra had spent the past few months renovating their three-bedroom home, preparing to put it on the market before starting plans to build their dream home on 25 acres of nearby rural property they purchased in December. A can of paint sat on the kitchen counter, awaiting another day of final touches. Meanwhile, the family had turned in for the night, covered with blankets and running a space heater in an unfinished back room to brace themselves against the freezing forecast predicted for Sunday night and Monday morning.
“At about two in the morning, I could hear Titan’s nails on the floor,” Sandra tells PEOPLE. “He was pacing back and forth, crying and whining. I remember saying, ‘Shut up, Titan. You’re going to wake everybody up.’ ”
But Titan persisted, so Erich got out of bed to take him outside.
“When I got to the dining room, I could see a smoke covering in the living room and kitchen,” Erich said. “I looked around a corner and could see flames and hear crackling. I immediately yelled for my wife and said, ‘The house is on fire.’ In a minute more, you couldn’t see anything through the smoke.”
Fortunately, both Erich and Sandra have emergency training – Sandra as a 12-year volunteer firefighter and Erich as a former security officer.
“Instinct kicked in,” Sandra says. During the fire, “I didn’t have any emotion. I was in robot mode.”
While Erich woke the couple’s 15-year-old son, Brandon, and got Titan outside, Sandra went to the bedroom where their five year-old daughter, Cheyenne, and 3- and 4-year-old sons, CJ and Erich Jr., slept. She shoved clothes under the door to help buy time and began handing the young children out a window to her husband one at a time. She then crawled to safety herself while a neighbor called 911.
“Everybody’s out and that’s all that matters,” Sandra says.
The cause of the blaze “is still under investigation,” Wayne County Fire Chief Melvin Martin tells PEOPLE, adding that preliminary investigation points to several possible causes: the space heater, a worn electrical cord or a faulty electrical outlet. He concedes that the fire is eerily similar to another that destroyed the couple’s two businesses near Honesdale, Pennsylvania, in April 2014. That blaze also occurred just after renovations had been completed. Erich’s contracting firm, 2 Cousins Construction, and Sandra’s gift shop, Savannah’s Inspirational Woodworks (named for one of two children born prematurely and lost), had been open only a week before being reduced to charred rubble.
Officials with the Pennsylvania State Fire Marshall’s office and State Police would not comment. But based on his talks with those agencies, Chief Martin is confident that both fires were accidental.
“We don’t have evidence or reason to believe otherwise,” he tells PEOPLE.
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For now, the Buehrings are taking things “one day at a time,” living in a 32-foot camper trailer on the property they share with three other dogs, two goats, a miniature donkey, several cats and some 30 chickens while deciding how to rebuild, Sandra says. There is a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money for the family, who lost nearly all their material possessions in the fire.
Meanwhile, Titan remains his “goofy, friendly, clumsy” self though he tends to stick a little closer to family members. For his heroism, “He got an entire sausage pizza,” Sandra says. “Titan just loves food, so it was a huge reward for him.”