CHANDLER, AZ — A Valley woman is sharing her side of the story after several animals were found dead after a house fire at her home in Chandler last week.
The devastating tragedy has shattered Andrea Smith's life. The disabled veteran has lost not only her home, and much of her belongings, she also lost more than a dozen animals she cared for. Three of them were personal pets who helped Smith get through many tough times in her life.
In the middle of the tragedy, Smith is having to fight off those who have labeled her a "hoarder" after learning about the fire.
"Nobody bothered to ask me anything and I'm not a hoarder," said Smith.
Chandler firefighters say they saw heavy fire and smoke inside the home when they arrived.
"What made this case unique was there was a lot of animals that were also found on the inside," said Battalion Chief Jason White, with the Chandler Fire Department.
Firefighters said the home appeared to be a "residential animal shelter," but Smith said there was a reason there were so many animals in her home that day.
Smith is the founder of Cruz's Crusaders animal rescue. She has been in business for more than seven years and has found forever homes for hundreds of dogs.
Smith said she had just picked up many of the dogs from other rescues to drive them up to a foster event in Mund's Park the next day.
"The dogs came here because we leave on Saturday mornings at 6:30 a.m.," she explained. "Dogs besides mine rarely stay here longer than a few weeks at most," said Smith.
Thirteen dogs and a feral cat lost their lives in the house fire. Smith is devastated as three of the dogs that died were her personal pets. One of them, Matrix, served as a service animal for the disabled veteran.
The Arizona Humane Society and a local veterinary clinic were called to the scene by Chandler officials to evaluate the surviving dogs. Smith said the Humane Society released all of the dogs back into her care after giving them a clean bill of health.
While she was temporarily homeless and living out of a hotel, other rescues in the Valley stepped up to help care for the dogs.
Smith said she is still waiting for the fire department to give her the clearance to re-enter her home. She said she has left them several messages but has not heard back from anyone.
ABC15 reached out to a City of Chandler spokesman to check on the status of the house fire. The spokesman said the fire is still under investigation, but Smith is cleared to enter her home.
She said she was speaking out about this tragedy to clear her name and to let everyone know how much she loved all the animals.
"I am not a hoarder. I am a dog rescuer, simply. A hoarder doesn't know the names of their dogs. They don't know details about the dogs," said Smith.
Rescue partners have created a fundraiser to help support Smith and the dogs they are now caring for. If you would like to help, you can visit their GoFundMe page.