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Brett Cunniff thought his 15 minutes of fame were over a month ago.

That's when the Missoulian ran a photo of the young firefighter holding an oxygen mask to a soot-colored, blue-eyed kitten outside a St. Patrick's Day house fire in the lower Rattlesnake.

Cue the "awwwwws" from family and friends and the local public.

But nothing is local anymore, not with the Internet.

The photo of Cunniff and the kitty sailed onto the World Wide Web, landing on a news site here, a pet site there.

Then, in quick succession last week, it hit CuteOverload.com and ICanHasCheezburger.com, a website that made "lolcats" famous and whose photos of cats and other animals are viewed by 15 million people a month worldwide, according to Quantcast, which analyzes web traffic.

Most of those photos are humorous. But Missoulian photographer Tom Bauer's tender shot of the tall firefighter and the tiny kitty touched a different nerve.

As of Friday, the photo was blowing away the competition for Cheezburger's photo of the week, with more than 4,000 votes, five "cheezburgers," and more than 5,000 recommendations on Facebook.

On all of the websites, the photo drew comments. Many, many comments.

One from cyberkedi would prove prophetic:

More proof that firefighters are genuine heroes! If this guy is single, he's gonna need his fire axe to beat off the ladies flinging themselves at him.

And fling they did, like cats at an unwary mouse.

From Artisanrox: Mr. Cunniff, are you single?????

E: I am drooling. He is the perfect man.

Wannadance: his name is BRETT and he is from MONTANA. oh, take me now.

Finally, from Stephany Murdy, in the Cheezburger argot known as LOLspeak or "Engrish":

Ai wud liek ta gib da fiermun a big kissy!

All of which is irresistible fodder for Cunniff's fellow firefighters and mortifies Cunniff, 32, a six-year department veteran.

"He's a little bit uncomfortable with all of this brouhaha," said Missoula Fire Chief Mike Painter. "He's taken a little bit of good-natured ribbing."

The fire department first got wind that the story had spiraled out of Missoula when the phone rang in Station No. 1 last week and an anonymous caller told administrative secretary Mary Meyer, "I'm calling about the kitten."

Meyer started figuring out how to gently tell the woman that most kittens, however pathetic, eventually come down from trees.

"But then she told me about this Web page" - which Meyer couldn't see because of the department's computer filters. Nonetheless, she shipped a quick email to Cunniff:

"Mr. Cunniff, you're famous."

She had no idea.

***

But enough about Cunniff (right about now, he wishes everybody would say that).

What about the kitten?

Once the photo went viral, kitten queries started coming in to the Missoulian from around the country.

A quick recap: One cat and two kittens were already dead when Cunniff's unit arrived at the burning house on Vine Street, and the striped gray kitten was clearly in distress, he said.

"I held his airway open and gave him some oxygen," which is when Bauer snapped the photo. Then Cunniff handed the kitten off to an ambulance crew and got back to work.

"It was just another day on the job," he said.

The ambulance crew continued with the oxygen, and then took the gray kitten and another they found to Pruyn Veterinary Hospital. The second kitten died en route.

Pruyn technician Char Ross took the story from there: "When she came in she was really upset and really smoky and her little brother had died on the way. She cried a lot at first. But we finally got her to eat, got her blood sugar back in balance, and people started picking her up and loving on her."

The folks at Pruyn immediately dubbed the kitten Smokey.

The next day, owner Laurie Pope showed up to reclaim her.

"When they said they had saved one, I knew it was that cat," said Pope, 45, who was away from home when the fire started in the living room. "She was the first one to come down stairs on her own, the first one to wander off, the friskiest one."

Pope's male cat, Shroomy, survived the fire, but the kittens' mother, Rasta, died, along with a pet rat named Sugar.

But the surviving kitten - her baby-blue eyes now grownup-cat green - remains as frisky as before, with no apparent lingering ill effects from her ordeal. "We're just so thankful for everyone's good wishes and prayers and positive thoughts," Pope said.

None of the kittens had been named on the day of the fire, she said.

But there was no question about what to call the sole surviving kitten.

"Smokey, of course," Pope said. "The public named her."

***

And now, despite his reluctance, back to Cunniff.

Someone on CuteOverload.com posted a link to his Facebook page, which proceeded to become, well, overloaded.

Two people from Hong Kong sent him links to the photo that ran on the other side of the world. And the, um, affectionate comments continue to pour in.

If that firefighter is single, he won't be for long, Harissa wrote. If not, I envy his wife.

Cunniff's not married, but he's got a girlfriend, the exceedingly good-humored Katie Holovnia, a dental hygienist whom he met at an ice hockey game in Bozeman. The two just started playing co-ed hockey.

"I'm sure they're like, ‘Oh, he's so sweet,' " said Holovnia, 32, of Missoula. "That's what I thought when I saw (the photo), too."

Besides, she said, Cunniff is a sweetie.

"He's got a soft heart for animals," she said.

So does the Missoula Fire Department. The department's ladder trucks actually carry pet-size oxygen masks, small flattish ones for cats and larger, long-snouted ones for dogs, said Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Logan.

Are pet masks standard equipment for fire departments?

"Let's call it a local option" in pet-loving Missoula, he said.

That fact would only cement the image that Hank Mudge of Binghamton, N.Y., now has of Missoula as a result of reading about Cunniff and the kitten.

"I think Missoula seems like a rare gem, a modern-day Mayberry R.F.D.," said Mudge, 64, a retired government worker who along with thousands and thousands of other people posted the photo on his Facebook page.

"If I lived anywhere near you folks, I would be working my butt off to get some form of official recognition for that fireman - and I don't think that a Brett Cunniff Day in Missoula is pushing the window at all."

"No, no, no," Cunniff protested. "That's completely unnecessary."

Mayor John Engen responded to Mudge's suggestion with characteristic finesse:

"Brett's one of the many men and women who ease pain and suffering in our community every day," the mayor wrote in an email. "Each of our firefighters deserve recognition for all the work they do, much of which simply isn't recorded in pictures or print. As far as I'm concerned, every day is Brett Cunniff Day."

Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio @missoulian.com or CopsAndCourts.com.

 

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