Maria Colon woke with a start in the early hours of August 7, 2015. The unsighted Philadelphia woman was unable to see anything wrong, but one of her other senses had kicked in. The then 56-year-old had been rudely awoken by the smell of smoke which – unbeknown to her – was billowing through her home. As the deadly fumes began to choke her, Colon did the only thing she could think of, and called out for her housemate. The only problem being that her cohabitant was a canine. This was a life-and-death situation, and surely all was lost. What could a dog be expected to do?
Maria Colon is originally from the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, but now lives in the Holmesburg neighborhood of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. Although she is registered as blind, this was not always the case. Unfortunately, Colon became sightless in 1992. This means that the poor woman has been visually impaired for almost half her life.
As a result of her disability, Colon required the assistance of a service dog. This was when she welcomed a Labrador retriever into her life and her home. The golden-haired female dog had been trained to help out and be a companion to the blind. As well as being a sighted guide for Colon, Yolanda was able to perform various functions independently. For example, if her owner held out Yolanda’s harness, the dog would climb into it herself.
This piece of equipment is actually a guidance harness so that Yolanda can help Colon negotiate and navigate the busy streets of Philadelphia. The Puerto Rican depends on her four-legged best friend so much that the unsighted woman even refers to the dog as “her eyes.” Understandably, the two have developed a very close bond, and Colon could be said to trust Yolanda with her life. And it turned out that the human mom’s faith in the Labrador was well placed.
Yolanda’s steadfast and dependable nature certainly came into its own on August 7, 2015. In fact, her actions on that date in the dead of night have led some to dub the dog a superhero. And with good reason; the brave Yolanda saw Colon to safety and out of a situation of lethal danger. It was thanks to two things – extensive training and a piece of specially adapted apparatus.
Colon had gone to sleep as usual but the events of the night were anything but normal. Somehow, in the hours of darkness, her Holmesburg row house had managed to catch fire. As smoke stealthily filled the woman’s home, Colon received a terrifying awakening. The deadly fumes had gathered in intensity by the time they had reached the woman’s sleeping quarters.
Colon later spoke to local TV station NBC10 about what transpired that summer’s night. She described her realization that a fire had taken hold in her home the instant the smell of smoke roused her from her slumbers. The blind woman awoke struggling for air. “I said, oh my God, it’s smoke, and I can’t breathe,” she recalled for the cameras. According to Colon, she did the only thing that she could think of.
Reportedly, Colon had worked with Yolanda every day for years, training the Lab to immediately respond to a single-word command. “When you train a dog, you use one word, and you use it all the time,” she informed NBC10 about the pair’s daily routine. This alarm call differs from service animal to animal, but in Yolanda’s case it was simple and direct – “danger.”
When Colon cried out in the smoke-engulfed house that night, Yolanda’s training kicked in when she heard the trigger word. Colon was shouting out “danger” repeatedly, and Yolanda got the message and the clever animal acted at once. The Lab knew just what to do, thanks to her daily routine, and what’s more she had the tools to do it. Colon’s home phone had been specially adapted, and was equipped with an instant-dial emergency call button.
Colon told NBC10 about what happened next in an interview two days after the event. “I hear the phone – tke, tke, tke – and [Yolanda] growling,” she remembered. “And I said, ‘Oh my Lord, she called the police.’” But as Colon went on to explain, that was not the end of Yolanda’s heroism that night. The courageous canine even guided her human out of the burning building.
Subsequent to Yolanda’s rapid reaction and 911 call, the emergency services responded right away. When firefighters and paramedics arrived at the scene, Colon was dispatched to the nearby Nazareth Hospital for medical treatment. Meanwhile, Yolanda was taken off to the specialist Ryan Hospital for Companion Animals at the University of Pennsylvania for a check-up of her own.
Colon was treated for the effects of smoke inhalation, but she knew that if it hadn’t been for Yolanda, it would have been much, much worse. Due to the circumstances and the nature of her disability, Colon could have quite easily lost her life. As for the hero of the hour, Yolanda was likewise suffering from having inhaled the potentially fatal fumes. In addition, the service dog had somehow scratched her eye during the escape.
But, thankfully, it would not be long before Yolanda was reunited with her grateful human once more. A couple of days of recuperation later, and the NBC10 cameras were on hand to capture the hugs and kisses when the pair met up again. Colon likened their relationship to that of a mother and daughter. “I’m her Mommy, and she loves me too much,” she said.
“I take care of [her], and [she] takes care of me,” Colon concluded to the NBC10 reporter. But the human mom was not the only one who was taking care of Yolanda. Volunteers from the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team also helped the service dog and Colon in the aftermath of Yolanda’s above-the-call-of-duty assistance work.
Red Paw is a non-profit organization based in Philadelphia that works together with various local and national emergency and social services. Acting in conjunction with other relief agencies, the charity offers aid to pets and their family members affected by residential disasters. This assistance includes veterinary care, search and rescue, and emergency transportation services.
The award-winning third sector group prides itself on being the only one of its kind to offer an all-day, every-day service. As it says on the Red Paw website, “Our mission is to provide relief and recovery for displaced pets and their people 24/7… [We] ensure that ALL family members are taken care of during and after a disaster in their home.” So in after that fateful night of the fire in summer 2015, the charity was more than happy to help Yolanda and her mom.
With the help of the American Red Cross, Red Paw provided Yolanda and Colon with temporary shelter. In fact it was at Red Cross House in downtown Philadelphia that the pair were filmed for their reunion. Colon and Yolanda were invited to stay on at the facility while experts assessed the fire damage at their Holmesburg address. Hopefully, the after effects of the fire didn’t keep them away from home for too long.
But as if Yolanda’s heroics that night were not amazing enough, it later emerged that there was even more to her story. Jen Leary, founder and president of the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, spoke to NBC10 about the service dog’s previous acts of derring do. Indeed, it turned out that the fire wasn’t the first emergency Yolanda has had to deal with. According to Leary, the Lab’s training has saved Colon on at least two other occasions.
Firstly, two years before the house fire, in 2013, Colon claimed that two people had broken into her home only for Yolanda to intercept them. The golden-haired retriever allegedly chased the intruders off, and brought Colon her telephone to alert the emergency services. One man was subsequently arrested, but later released without charge.
Furthermore, also in 2013, Yolanda was said to have used the emergency call button to dial 911. Her unsighted mom had reportedly been knocked unconscious after suffering a fall and the canine superhero had summoned rescuers. Yolanda is a shining example of how assistance animals can transform, enhance and sometimes save their human’s lives. Ultimately all such caring creatures are heroes – after all, who is more deserving of blind trust than a service dog?