Early one June morning, Lance Johnson lay sound asleep in his bed. Meanwhile his dog Harley frantically licked his face, briefly waking him. Johnson fell back sleep as smoke alarms continued to ring in the background and smoke drifted into his room.
A month and a half earlier, Johnson moved into his trailer in Kingston. He was in the process of buying the home: "The first home I've ever been able to buy."
With Johnson was Harley, a 10-year-old Blue Heeler. "Once he gets to know you, he just wants to be loved," Johnson said about his dog. "He's a big baby.
"He's my first-born son -- mess with this dog and you mess with me. I got a 9-year-old boy. I've had [Harley] just a couple years younger than my son's been born. I ain't going to say he means more to me than my son does cause that would be false, but I'd do anything for him ... I've took him deer hunting, boat riding, you name it."
"He's [Johnson's] first son," said Johnson's wife, Cynthia Johnson. "This dog is his whole life since we've had him ... When he goes, its gonna be just like losing a child."
After a late night at work, Johnson lit a few candles and kicked back to relax on the couch in his living room. He was alone at the house that night. After briefly falling asleep, Johnson awoke, blew out the candles and went to bed. However, he missed a few candles sitting on the hope chest next to the VCR and cable box.
"They were sitting behind the VCR, so I didn't think nothing about them," Johnson said.
He went to bed around 2 a.m.
At 5 a.m., Johnson woke up briefly with Harley licking his face. "I woke up and remember seeing him get off the bed but I went right back out. I'm thinking the smoke [inhalation] was probably getting to me by then."
Then Johnson woke again. Harley stood on Johnson's stomach licking away.
"I was so drenched in slobber, it was dripping off my face. He had been trying to wake me up for a while ... He done everything he's not supposed to do to get me up. He knows not to lick me in the face, he knows not to get on my furniture."
The first thing Johnson noticed was the smell of smoke. The smoke was so thick in his room that Johnson could not even see the television playing several feet in front of him.
"The smoke alarms were blaring. You could hear them all over Kingston. At the time nobody lived on this road but me ... It was just me by myself at the time ... If it hadn't of been for [Harley], I was done. I have no doubt."
Johnson and Harley stepped outside for a moment to catch their breath then returned to face the fire in the living room.
The smoke was so thick that Johnson could not even see the fire. "I could feel the heat but couldn't see the flames." He approached the fire, finally seeing the seven-foot flames.
Sitting in the sink of his kitchen were gallon jugs from a cousin's bachelor party several nights before; they were filled with water. Johnson went to work. Two gallons of water put the fire out and another was poured just in case.
"If it hadn't been for those jugs I would have had to call the fire department and probably lost the house ... I made sure the fire was out, then I got out of there."
Johnson never went to the hospital but said it took several days before he was able to breathe fully. Harley uncharacteristically spent a week laying around. They both coughed up black soot.
According to Cynthia Johnson, a check-up with a veterinarian later found that Harley was as healthy as he could be for his age. "He's doing good; he's just getting fat," Cynthia Johnson said, who also works at the Bartow Animal Hospital.
Johnson had to replace the wall behind the Hope Chest as well as the chest and VCR. He estimates the damage to have been around $1,200.
"I fixed most of it but I still got a little smoke damage around the ceiling. You can see some of it in the bedroom. We still have soot settling" and "coming out of my vents still."
Johnson recommends for anyone to get a dog. "Not only for the companionship but possibly it can save their life one day."
"It's not a bad idea to have a dog ... just treat it like it was you or me," he said. "That's what I've done with [Harley] his whole life, I've treated him just like he was a person. This dog, he'll go through hell with me, literally... If he could dial numbers, I believe he would have called 911. I'm not kidding."
According to Johnson, Harley has been closer to him than ever before and rarely leaves Johnson's side.
"He saved my life. If it wasn't for him, I would not be here. I have no doubt about that. If it had been somebody who had come in and saved me, they probably would have got an award."
"Don't take life for granted, cause you never know," Johnson said. "You never know.
"I'll always have a dog."