PORT CLINTON, Ohio (WOIO) - The park owner, as well as state and local investigators, provided new details on the fire that left 10 animals dead at a northern Ohio wildlife sanctuary on Thanksgiving night.
According to investigator Frank Reitmeier, of the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office, it may take weeks to identify the cause and origin of the blaze at the African Safari Wildlife Park.
The fire broke out just after 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving at a building constructed in the 1980s that houses animals on park property.
The park’s general manager first reported flames.
Police confirmed three giraffes were among those that died, as well as three bongos, a springbok, and three red river hogs.
The three giraffes that died were all under the age of 3 years old, including one that just arrived to the park last week.
Holly Hunt, co-owner of the park, said thousands of people have reached out in support following the fire.
“Recovery is beginning from this devastating event,” Hunt said, while trying to hold back emotions.
Staff members are working to care for other animals that were in or near the burning wooden-frame building, according to Hunt.
If not for the workers who let surviving giraffes and zebras out of the pen, the animal death toll could have been higher.
“Animals are part of our family,” Hunt said.
Other injuries that animals sustained appear to be primarily stress-related.
According to Hunt, the building was partially heated using propane gas to maintain a livable environment for the exotic animals. There is no natural gas on the premises.
The structure was not equipped with a suppression system to extinguish a fire, Hunt described.
The fire marshal’s office said the investigation is still in the preliminary stages, but the fire does not appear to be intentional.
“We have nothing that would make us think it’s a criminal act at this point,” Reitmeier said. “With that, it could be a natural disaster, from weather or a possibly accidental fire.”
There were power outages reported in the area the day before the fire, according to Reitmeier. The state agency is looking to see if the outages may have been a contributing factor to the fire.
The African Safari Wildlife Park, which cares for more than 400 other animals, was closed on Friday. Hunt said the park was supposed to close for the season on Sunday, but is now unsure if they will reopen again this year.
Hunt does intend on opening the park on time next season with plans for a dedication to the lost animals.
A family in disbelief
When the Gonsowski family hit the road for their favorite family vacation, they were expecting to spend the holiday laughing and feeding carrots to animals, but that’s not what they got.
“It’s a shame,” said Keith Gonsowski, who traveled from the suburbs of Chicago just to see the African Safari Wildlife Park with his family. “Drove five hours to come out here and experience this just a shame to hear this, a shock actually. It just doesn’t feel right.”
They had no idea that ten of these exotic animals died in a fire until they arrived Friday morning.
“It’s a horrible way to die right and being an animal lover it’s so sad I think,” said Erin Gonsowski. “It really is devastating for us to hear, but I can’t imagine how the workers are feeling. I feel bad for them. I feel bad for the other animals too.”
Any contributions made to the park in lieu of the fire will go toward giraffe conservation groups.