Woman seeks locals’ help finding pets lost after escaping RV fire

Suzanne Ely, left, and Barbara Randell put up posters in Ridgeway while canvasing the area east of I-77, between Exits 34 and 41 in search of Randell’s three missing cats. | Photos: Barbara Ball

WINNSBORO – A Florida woman is wishing for a holiday miracle this Thanksgiving as she seeks help from the surrounding Fairfield County communities in reuniting her with her lost pets.

On August 15, Barbara Randlett, 84, was making her annual trek to Maine from her Florida home to visit family when she crossed the state line into South Carolina. Randlett typically made the drive with a friend or family member, but she said she had become so accustomed to the drive that she felt confident going it alone in recent years.

For this year’s trip, Randlett had purchased a used Recreational Vehicle to better accommodate herself and her six animals that were traveling with her, but that purchase took a tragic toll on her journey.

As she entered Fairfield County, nearing mile marker 39 on U.S. 77 and just above Exit 34, a fire broke out under the hood of the 25-foot motor home. Within seconds, Randlett said, the flames began to encroach on the cab area of the RV.

“I never saw anything move so fast as that fire that night,” she recalled through tears.

With her thoughts only on the animals in the vehicle with her, Randlett pulled over to the side of the road and set to work on freeing them. The first she pulled out were her two dogs, Charlie the lab and Ruby the pug. As she tethered Charlie to a guardrail, Ruby freed herself from Randlett’s grasp and ran around the back of the burning RV and into oncoming interstate traffic. She was struck and killed almost instantly.

“It was an awful experience that I cannot even describe how painful that moment was,” Randlett stated. “To see it happen and not be able to stop it was terrible.”

While staying at the Comfort Inn in Blythewood, Barbara Randlett cuddles her newest adoption, her missing cat’s Lincoln look-alike that she has named Lincoln II.

With barely any time to mourn Ruby’s death, Randlett had to turn her attention back to the burning RV where her four cats were still trapped. With the aid of two passers-by who stopped to help, Randlett was able to force open the back door of the RV and three of the four cats escaped into the wooded area next to the interstate.

Randlett had only enough time to retrieve the fourth cat, which had been kept in a kennel, before the entire vehicle went up in flames.

“There is no way to describe that moment; watching everything I owned go up into flames,” she stated. “I had been so worried about saving my animals that I did not have time to grab even my purse.”

Randlett lost her identification, her clothing and her money in a matter of minutes. Fire and police officials were forced to close the northbound lanes of I-77 for eight hours as they fought the blaze and then cleared the debris.

Despite her great losses that night, Randlett said she was also shown incredible generosity in the days that followed.

Blythewood volunteers who are helping search for the missing cats provided Randlett with a map showing where the cats most probably could be located.

“A police officer took me to a hotel nearby – the Ramada – and the owner let me stay there at no charge until someone could come and pick me up. He would not even think of letting me pay him, and I am so thankful for everything he did for me while I was there. He and his staff were so kind to me.”

Still, Randlett had to return to her home without her three missing companions. The heartbreak from that night still weighs on her with each passing day.

“I have nightmares nearly every night where I am reliving the whole ordeal. I still see Ruby getting hit and I still see the fire, and I still can’t talk about it without crying. I know it’s something that I need to talk about, but it is just so hard to do,” she stated.

The cats; Belle – a 10 year-old black and white female with long hair and a bobbed tail, Lincoln – a 6 year-old black and gray tabby striped male cat, and Sophie – a young female cat with dark stripes along her back and a white face, chest and stomach still have not been seen.

Randlett has continued to make regular contact with local rescues and humane societies in the area to see if anyone has brought in a cat that resembles one of her own, and she is now offering a $200 reward for each cat.

Earlier this month, Randlett returned to South Carolina with family friend, Suzanne Ely to post fliers in shelters and around the area in search of the cats. While here, she met with two local college students who believed they had found Lincoln.

While the cat was not hers, Randlett chose to bring the cat home with her anyway where she said he has helped with her grieving.

“My neighbors had also surprised me with a kitten sometime after the accident, and now the two get along very well and keep me entertained,” she stated.

“I still hope every day that someone will call to tell me that they have my cats. Maybe someone has been feeding them that didn’t know they are missing, or maybe they joined up with a colony of stray cats there. However it happens, I just hope that they are found so that I can bring them back home.”