Decatur garden designer killed rescuing dogs from fire

A well respected, internationally-known Decatur garden designer died in a fire trying to save his dogs, officials said.

Ryan Gainey died Friday night in his second home, which is in Oglethorpe County, Coroner James Mathews said Sunday. He was 72 years old.

"The sad news that I share is almost to much to bear," Brooks Garcia, a longtime friend of Gainey's, said on Facebook. "My good friend, and mentor, Ryan Gainey died tragically last night in a fire in Lexington Georgia while trying to save his beloved dogs."

Gainey shared a portrait of his Jack Russell terriers on his website.

“I share my life with many living things, but few are as precious to me as my Jack Russell terriers,” Gainey wrote.

Sheriff Mike Smith said the call about a fire at 357 East Church Street in Lexington came in to 911 about 8:23 p.m. Friday.

By the time volunteer firefighters arrived at the home of Ryan Gainey, flames fully engulfed the structure and safety concerns prevented anyone from entering, Oglethorpe County EMA Director Douglas Spencer said.

Lexington is a small community of maybe a few hundred people and a volunteer-only fire service.

Unfortunately, by the time a neighbor or someone realized something went wrong, the fire spread, Spencer said.

“It’s a tragedy and a deep impact to the community,” Spencer said.

After the first three volunteer firefighters arrived on a fire truck, more people showed up in personal vehicles to help. A total of four fire trucks from three local fire departments arrived, but the house was a total loss.

Spencer couldn’t confirm if the dogs’ bodies were found, but he did say a man’s body was found near the back door of the residence. He said he doesn’t suspect any sort of foul play.

“It’s something we’ve unfortunately seen before,” Spencer said. “Something accidental or unintentional happens and the resident tries to go back in for something or someone. That appears to be the case here. By all witness accounts, he went back in to save his dogs.”

Garcia said Gainey’s dogs, who were to him the children Gainey never had, also died in the fire.

“Jelly Bean, Leo and Baby Ruth are with him now running through fields of gold,” Garcia said.

Local organizations and friends shared thoughts and condolences for Gainey on social media.

The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation called Gainey “world-renowned” and said he graciously opened his Lexington home for the 2015 Spring Ramble.

“Our hearts are heavy with sorrow,” the trust said. “Our deepest condolences are with his friends and family.”

President and CEO of the Atlanta Botanical Garden Mary Pat Matheson called Gainey’s death a “great loss for not only our community, but for our country because Ryan was so highly regarded as an esteemed designer and horticulturist.”

By phone, Garcia called Gainey his mentor and said they had been friends for 26 years.

“I came on as Ryan’s personal assistant to collaborate and put his garden designs and ideas on paper,” Garcia said.

The men stayed friends long after they stopped working together, and Garcia said those who knew Gainey were on a “call list” because Gainey loved to talk.

“There were phone calls almost daily,” Garcia said. “I never went a week without talking to him.”

He would talk about topics ranging from art and poetry to etymology of plants.

“He was a brilliant man who never stopped learning,” Garcia said.

Gainey bought his Lexington home about two years ago and was considering making it his permanent home because he engaged with the place and felt a real sense of community there.

“He liked the slower pace of life there,” Garcia said, adding Gainey often did things such as bring tomato pie to the lady at the bank. “He had gone to a party up the street the night his house burned. He was enjoying that sense of community.”

Garcia and friends are planning a memorial in the Atlanta area within the next two weeks.

A full report from the Oglethorpe County Sheriff’s Office is expected Tuesday, Spencer said.