ST. PETERSBURG — Flames leapt 20 feet above the roof as James Campbell's pickup skidded to a stop early Tuesday outside his kennel at Derby Lane.
The heat was so intense it melted plastic casing on a nearby vehicle and the kennel's siding.
Inside were 46 greyhounds, lean and muscular, trapped in their metal cages. Campbell, 38, knows them all by name, knows their likes and dislikes.
The dogs jumped up and down in their cages, wagging their tails. They wanted to play.
But Campbell knew he didn't have much time.
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Greyhound racing runs in Campbell's blood.
His mother, stepfather and two aunts all trained greyhounds.
He made his first trip to a dog track when he was 5 or 6, and at 13 he got a job walking, feeding and cleaning up after the dogs.
"I just loved it," Campbell said.
He got his first dog-training job at 18 in Daytona Beach. He eventually moved to St. Petersburg and continued dog training and helping out in the kennels until he bought his own kennel at Derby Lane, 10490 Gandy Blvd. N, in 2003. He gets a cut of any winnings.
He once tried working a "real job" at a car rental shop, he said. It lasted 30 days.
He loves greyhounds, calling them majestic and beautiful, each imbued with its own quirky personality. They're just like people, but better.
"Greyhounds give you unconditional love," he said. "They don't judge, they don't question you. They're always there for you when you need them."
Greyhound racing has sharply divided camps among animal lovers. Critics call it inhumane and say overbreeding leads to massive euthanasia. Campbell disagrees. "There's nobody that loves these animals more than we do," he said.
He showed his devotion Tuesday by running into a burning building to save them.
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He got the call at 2:48 a.m., waking him from a sound sleep.
"You need to get here now, your kennel is on fire," the voice on the other end said.
He ran to his pickup truck and sped six blocks to Derby Lane, blowing through a red light and speeding past the guard station.
Then he saw flames. "I thought I was too late," he said.
Campbell skidded to a stop about 20 feet from his kennel, which he leases from the dog track.
The room glowed red from the flames above. The next few minutes are a blur.
He started at the end farthest from the blaze and went down the row, coughing as black smoke began to build inside the kennel. The metal cages were stacked two high, one on top of the other, so he had to pick up dogs on the second level and place them to the floor.
He said it took him about three or four minutes, though he's not really sure.
The dogs didn't help. They yelped and jumped and wagged their tails. Mornings are play time for the energetic breed. They figured Campbell was there for fun.
Many of the dogs congregated around Campbell and didn't seem bothered by the smoke, he said. "They had no sense of danger whatsoever," he said.
About half went out the open door on their own. The rest, zipping around his legs, followed him out the door to an outdoor pen. They eventually were moved to another kennel at the track.
Firefighters arrived as Campbell pulled the last dog from the building, he said. Moments later, the roof collapsed.
"It was minutes before tragedy," Campbell said.
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This is the first time a kennel has caught fire at Derby Lane.
Campbell and track officials credit a properly functioning heat sensor for triggering a series of events that led to the rescue. Firefighters blamed an electrical problem in the heating and air-conditioning system for starting the blaze.
Damage was estimated at $60,000, but it could have been much worse, Campbell said.
"My first and only concern was to the dogs," he said. "I went into a burning building and I went out with 46 dogs."