The day Hurricane Katrina was set to hit the United States I read an interview in a Canadian newspaper with a couple in Mississippi – Diane and Tony Brugger. They owned a bed and breakfast called Harbour Oaks Inn located across from Pass Christian Yacht Harbour on the Gulf Coast and they were planning to weather the storm. I went to their website and was treated to pictures of a truly beautiful huge white wooden three storey inn, with a 44’ verandah overlooking the harbour. At the time, it was one of three remaining intact oceanfront resorts from the 19th century and was located 33 feet above sea level. On a whim I wrote to them and told them I could see why they were staying put, and that I hoped in better times I might be able to come visit them.
I heard nothing back for several weeks, but hadn’t actually expected to. Then an email arrived from a family friend who told me the inn had been destroyed in the storm and that the family had suffered some personal loss. A day later a letter arrived from their daughter and then from Diane Brugger herself. The terrible news was that her husband Tony had died in the storm, as had one of their dogs Harley. She and the couple’s three other dogs had managed to escape. I wrote back to her and said that I had read different news stories about her tragedy on the internet and asked if she could verify some things. She emailed me with details about the storm and about their lives and as I read it, it revealed a truly touching story.
The Brugger’s were real dog people. In her email to me, Diane explained how they had four dogs, but hadn’t actually planned to have a dog family that large. Harley was what she calls a ‘self rescue’ Golden retriever and had found them. He was familiar to everyone in their town and the drive through windows in Pass Christian would keep dog biscuits for him. Even though he enjoyed making the rounds of McDonald’s and drive- thru at the bank, once he went to live with them, Diane says he never left her husband Tony’s side. She remembers, “One time Harley was totally paralyzed from the ribcage down for almost six months. Tony took him to swim at the beach twice a day to keep his legs from atrophying. Our vet was incredulous when we took Harley to his office and Harley stepped out of our van, shaky, but walking when no one had expected him to live.”
The next two dogs Mattie and Truman, two chow/border collie mixes, arrived in the house after the Brugger’s were forced by a chemical spill to take a detour by a Humane Society. Diane was reluctant to look inside because she said it always depressed her seeing those sad animal faces and told Tony not to go in. If he did, she said, whoever they ended up with would be his responsibility. A half an hour later, two dogs, littermates joined their family. Their fourth dog, Ivan, a Newfoundland/border collie, was a puppy Diane’s daughter had brought over to the house after surgery for an injury sustained in a car accident. Pretty soon, all the dogs were sleeping in bed with them.
So when Hurricane Katrina started to bear down on the area, she and Tony took their beloved dogs to a second floor bedroom. Armed with plenty of supplies in the house, and the knowledge that the Inn had survived Hurricane Camille with no problem, as well as the fact that the storm had been downgraded to a category three they went to bed. Within hours, the house started breaking apart and Tony was hit on the head by debris and swept away. Diane survived for about four hours by hanging onto a tree. The seventeen-year-old retriever, Harley was swept away while the other dogs balanced on the debris. One of them, Ivan, became stuck between the debris and the tree and screamed frantically to be rescued. Despite the fact that he was panicked and she was sure he would bite her in his frenzy, Diane tried to rescue him. She marvels at the fact that he did not try to bite her, even though she wasn’t successful in freeing him. Within seconds though the debris moved and he wriggled free.
Diane remembers, “We were all together for almost the entire time. Then the dogs went into the water one at a time. I prayed to Tony to watch over our babies. And he did. I know he kept Harley with him. And the both of them are still watching over us. All of us have been truly blessed.”
Eventually she was rescued and ended up in the hospital, but had no idea what had happened to Tony and the dogs. The next day her housekeeper, Darlene and husband Mark went back to the house.
There they found the body of Tony. Near to him lay the dead body of Harley, the golden retriever. Around Tony were the other three dogs, Mattie, Truman and Ivan, all alive. They were all lying close to Tony’s body. When the police arrived to put a sheet over Tony’s body, they tried to get the dogs to follow them, but they wouldn’t leave. Mattie guarded Tony and wouldn’t let anyone near. Darlene was able to coax Mattie away just long enough for the police to do what they had to.
Tony and Diane’s dogs just what came naturally to dogs – they were brave and they were loyal. And they were man’s best friend right up to the end and even then some.
The family has asked that in lieu of flowers and in Tony’s memory donations be made to a veterinarian in the area
Crossroads Animal E.R. & Clinic
10393 Hwy 49
Gulfport, MS 39503
Attention: Dr. Debra Zerr