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Plop’s army: Volunteers work to reunite cat with owner after Columbia apartment fire

Plop the cat poses for a photo the day before the fire and his subsequent disappearance.
Plop the cat poses for a photo the day before the fire and his subsequent disappearance.

Rachel Cline wasn’t looking for a pet.

The only reason she was at the Loudoun County Animal Services shelter on Sept. 15, 2019, was to drop off donations with her stepmother.

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When she walked by the cages of animals, however, one cat caught her eye: His beige- and peach-colored fur reminded her of Tommy, her childhood cat.

“I opened the crate and he leapt and plopped in my arms and fell asleep,” Cline said.

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That’s how Cline’s cat, Plop, got his name.

“Since the day I brought him home he was the perfect pet,” Cline said.

What once was a story of a by-chance pet adoption, however, has turned into a desperate reunification effort. Plop’s name and face now line the streets of Columbia, as volunteers, pet rescue organizations and Cline search for her missing cat.

After a May 31 fire at the Clary’s Crossing complex that destroyed Cline’s apartment and damaged 23 others, the community has sprung to action working to reunite Cline and her beloved Plop.

Where did Plop go?

Cline’s apartment was engulfed in flames by the time she pulled up to her complex in her white Hyundai.

Just 45 minutes earlier, the 28-year-old who works for the U.S. Army’s advertising agency, was on her way to Bel Air when her phone pinged, an alert from her Amazon Alexa app reporting that the smoke detectors in her apartment had gone off. Cline didn’t think much of it at the time because her smart home security system was set up to detect nearly everything.

Cline’s inclination was proved wrong when a neighbor phoned: Her apartment building was on fire.

The fire at Clary's Crossing started just before 7 p.m. May 31.
The fire at Clary's Crossing started just before 7 p.m. May 31.

She immediately turned around, desperate to get home to make sure Plop was OK.

Cline said she sped back, and when she pulled into the development, a fire truck was blocking the parking lot. Behind the truck, Cline caught her first glimpse of the smoldering building.

“It’s kind of like tunnel vision,” she said.

Cline ran past the firefighters and the yellow caution tape, straight into her apartment building. With her first step in the doorway of the building, Cline could feel the water. It reached her ankles all the way up to her third-floor apartment.

“When you lose a pet or someone you love, you’re not concerned about your own safety,” she said.

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She reached her apartment and peered inside. There was nothing to see past the front door.

The May 31 fire at the Clary’s Crossing apartment complex caused damage to 24 apartments.
The May 31 fire at the Clary’s Crossing apartment complex caused damage to 24 apartments.

“That’s when the severity hit me. From the front of the building, you couldn’t really see the damage,” she said,

A firefighter found an inconsolable Cline and escorted her out of the ravaged building.

Cline later learned that a neighbor tried to rescue Plop, but the cat got away, running back toward the fire.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know what his fate was,” Cline said of Plop.

According to the county fire department’s investigative report, the fire was an accident. Once the fire was extinguished, firefighters found no signs of remains in Cline’s apartment, leading her to believe Plop survived the blaze.

The three items Rachel Cline was able to recover from her Columbia apartment.
The three items Rachel Cline was able to recover from her Columbia apartment.

When Cline was able to return to the apartment June 9, everything was reduced to ash. In her back corner closet, she found the only three items that remained intact: one of her Army hats, a iron horse figurine and a piece of wall art that read “Life is Better with a Cat.”

“The three things in my life that are important to me [are] my horses, my cat and my job,” Cline said. “It was ironic to me that the three things I was able to retrieve were the things that were most important to me in life.”

Plop’s army

The night before the fire, Cline had a photo shoot with Plop, collecting new images of her adored cat. At the time, Cline had no idea how helpful the images would be, or how ubiquitous they’d become around Columbia.

It all started with a few flyers. Then Cline posted on Nextdoor, a social networking app for neighborhoods, describing Plop and the events surrounding his disappearance.

The responses poured in, and an army of volunteers formed — Columbia community members and residents of Clary’s Crossing alike.

After the fire, Leslie Briggs, who lives in another building in Clary’s Crossing, was scrolling through Nextdoor looking for more information about the fire when she saw Cline’s post.

“If it were me, I’d hope someone would help me, too,” the 25-year-old said.

She messaged Cline and joined the efforts. As one of the few volunteers who lived in the apartment complex, Briggs said she had the perfect lookout spot for Plop. Briggs, who was already working from home, moved her workspace out to her balcony.

“Because I’m working from home, I have really flexible work hours and said to my boss that I really want to help this girl find her cat,” Briggs said.

Four different kinds of flyers have circulated since Plop’s disappearance. They’re pressed into the glass at storefronts in Columbia, they’re printed onto T-shirts some volunteers wear and they’re condensed into business cards.

Elizabeth Jayne, Lisa Jones and Rob Brooks surround a Plop flyer in Columbia.
Elizabeth Jayne, Lisa Jones and Rob Brooks surround a Plop flyer in Columbia.

Elizabeth Jayne, 59, saw Cline’s post on Nextdoor and said she felt devastated.

“I’m a cat person. I’m a pet person. When I’ve seen lost animals [in the past], I’ve tried to help find them,” Jayne said.

To help, Jayne changed the routes of her daily walks to reach potential points or paths where Plop could be. Along her walks, if Jayne would run into people she would ask them to check underneath their decks, and in their shrubs — anywhere Plop could be hiding.

Dondra Coniglio, 53, has also been helping with volunteer efforts. She had turquoise T-shirts made with one of the flyers printed on the back for some of the volunteers to wear. Coniglio wears her shirt anytime she goes on errands or on walks to look for Plop.

Dondra Coniglio wears her turquoise T-shirt with Plop's information.
Dondra Coniglio wears her turquoise T-shirt with Plop's information.

“Plop has become quite well known in the area,” Coniglio said. “Some people will inquire [about the shirt], but some people already know about him. It can’t hurt to wear it around town. It’s just more awareness.”

The groundwork has been largely left to the volunteers. Since the fire destroyed Cline’s home, she was forced to move in with her parents in Virginia, a 90-minute drive from Columbia.

“[The volunteers have] really been there to support me, be my eyes and ears when I couldn’t be there in person,” Cline said. “This is on their own time, their own dime.”

What does it take to find a missing animal?

Denise Harris has been involved in the search from nearly the beginning, when Cline reached out to Lost Animal Resource Group the day after the fire.

Harris, of Ellicott City, is one of the four co-founders of the county nonprofit that helps residents reunite with lost pets. The organization, founded in November, has received 1,001 requests for help.

“What I didn’t realize at the time [when Cline reached out] was that she had an army of people helping her already,” Harris, 62, said.

There are a few factors that make the Plop’s recovery difficult, though, according to Harris. Once animals are gone for an extended period of time, they usually need to be trapped. It’s unlikely they’ll return to their homes on their own.

“With a fire, it’s worse. [Animals] run from a traumatic situation and they tend not to come back to where the traumatic situation happened,” Harris said.

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The remnants of Rachel Cline's apartment in the Clary’s Crossing complex in Columbia.
The remnants of Rachel Cline's apartment in the Clary’s Crossing complex in Columbia.

Then there’s the lack of distinction in Plop’s appearance.

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“You don’t realize until you’re missing an orange cat, how many orange cats there are in Columbia,” Harris said. “If you’re missing an animal that has a distinct appearance, it’s a lot easier to find.”

Originally Harris drew a 2-block radius around the Clary’s Crossing complex. Generally, she said, cats tend to stay close, but with no sightings of Plop, Harris expanded the radius.

“I don’t think there’s a part of Columbia that doesn’t know about Plop,” Harris said.

Hope for the future

Sometimes it takes years for pets to be reunited with their owners, Harris said. In this situation, it helps that Plop is microchipped. If someone finds him, they’ll easily be able to get in contact with Cline.

Until then, Plop’s army is out searching for him, posting flyers along walking paths and rallying together to bring Plop back to Cline.

“We’re cat people, we’re pet people and sometimes I think we are taking it to a little too far of an extreme, but we take this obligation that we’re going to take care of our pets, and that’s behind everything Rachel does,” Jayne said.

Briggs said a lot of people just want to do some good, especially during this time of pandemic.

“Sometimes you see something really bad happen. You see someone’s apartment go down in flames and there’s nothing you can do, so you do what you can to help,” Briggs said. “A lot of people admire the resolve that [Cline’s] looked this long and this hard.”

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