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In small businesses' time of need, Centre St. community steps up

Amid the chaos, smoke, and flames of the West Roxbury fire that killed two firefighters Wednesday night, frantic current and former employees of the Continental Shoppe pet-grooming store herded two-dozen dogs and a cat into a van.

The pets were being boarded at the Continental Shoppe, a pet-grooming store three doors down from the Tai Ho restaurant, where a fast-moving fire was spreading to adjacent businesses.

P.J. Hartigan, 63, who lives about three blocks away in West Roxbury, watched the scene from outside a police barricade.

"There were a lot of people [helping out] with the dogs," Hartigan said.

John C. Kennedy Jr. - who owns the business and the strip of stores on Centre Street, many of which were destroyed - said employees who worked for him 20 years ago came to help.

Ilene Segal, owner of the Parkway Veterinary Hospital a mile away and a longtime friend of Kennedy's, reached him on his cellphone after seeing the news on television, and offered to take in his animals. While Kennedy had a plan for evacuating the pets, alternate accommodations for two-dozen animals at a moment's notice had not been planned at the clinic, Segal said.

"They were all smoky, upset, and crazy," Segal said as pets barked and howled at the veterinary hospital yesterday afternoon. The facility fielded calls from pet owners all day. Owners "were just so happy to know that people cared enough to go in there and rescue their pets when it was such mayhem, and people were dying," she said. "It was wonderful to know that they had survived."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino called the animal rescue one miracle during a night of tragedy in which more than a dozen emergency responders were injured.

"If there's any bright spot to this whole thing, it was Jack's story about his employees coming back and helping him move those dogs," Menino said yesterday afternoon at the scene, referring to Kennedy.

Centre Street is the economic lifeline that runs through this tree-lined community in Boston's southwest corner, known for its engaged citizens and active small-business community. Residents and business owners, clearly in mourning for the fallen firefighters, quickly turned to finding ways to help.

Menino said city officials met with shop owners at 8 a.m. yesterday to talk about the city loan programs available. He said Governor Deval Patrick and US Senator John F. Kerry have also promised to help the businesses if needed. "We're going to get these businesses back on line as quickly as possible," Menino said.

Shirley Walsh, owner of the Kalembar Dune antique shop, said a fund-raiser for the firefighters' families and for the businesses has been planned for Sept. 21 at Moseley's on the Charles, a reception hall in Dedham. The space is being donated, and restaurants and shops already have committed to donating food and items for a silent auction, she said.

"Two great guys lost their lives trying to save a city block of ours, and I feel sick about it," Walsh said. "The families need to know that we appreciate what was given here. People need a chance to channel their grief into something positive."

The Roche Family Community Center, across the street from Tai Ho, placed food and drinks on a table outside yesterday for emergency personnel, work crews, and shopkeepers who had gathered there.

"This business area is really tight," said Eleanor Greene of Jamaica Plain, co-owner of West on Centre, a restaurant next to the community center. "We all help each other out."

Shiela Cobb - owner of The Ferns flower shop on Centre Street, which she said was destroyed by the fire - said she has received an overwhelming number of phone calls from people offering money and help for the cleanup.

"It's totally a community, and it's so apparent in a time like this," she said.

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com.

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