Carroll horse trainer starting over after barn fire, burglary

January 23, 1992|By Ross Peddicord

Joanna Weber-Sichette said she and her husband, John, "are living for the day when we can close our eyes and not see flames and burning horses."

In about one hour 10 days ago, Weber-Sichette lost just about everything she cared for in life.

Her livelihood, and nine of the 10 horses she trained, were destroyed in a fire that destroyed the historic training barn at Bowling Brook Farm in western Carroll County on Jan. 13.

"We had just turned the corner in our professional lives," Weber-Sichette said. "We had three horses ready to run, and after 15 years of scrimping and saving and working all kinds of jobs, I had built up my clientele and had a string of 10 horses to train. I just loved my life."

Since then, her predicament has worsened. Out of work and haunted by the memories of her beloved "babies," as she refers to the dead animals, she was also robbed of many of her most valuable possessions a few days after the fire.

The house she lived in at Bowling Brook was burglarized and her jewelry, color television, videocassette recorder and microwave oven were taken.

"So just about everything my husband and I had either has been destroyed or stolen," she said. The couple was married two months ago. Her husband, John Sichette, works as a groom at Pimlico Race Course for trainer Ann Merryman.

The fire, which is believed to have started in a stall used for hay and straw storage and located next to Weber-Sichette's horses, and the burglary, are under investigation.

The police, Weber-Sichette said, have advised her to stay awa from the farm. She has no idea who, if anyone, would have such a vendetta against her to kill her horses and burglarize her house.

"We're just wondering what could happen next," she said.

The one consolation, "the one, living thing I can cling to," sh said, is her horse, In My Power, that miraculously survived the fire.

Weber-Sichette recalls vividly that fateful night. She has neve been so terrified.

She was wearing only a nightgown and sweats, when she, John, and a number of others who lived in nearby tenant houses, tried to rescue the horses.

The fire was reported at 11:23 p.m. Within an hour, the 98-year-old wooden circular barn, which contained 49 stalls and a one-sixth-mile indoor galloping track, burned completely, "like a tinderbox," an eyewitness said.

Nine of In My Power's stablemates died of smoke inhalation before they could be saved.

"I ran into one flaming stall and tried to drag out a horse that was already dead," Weber-Sichette said. "Somehow, I thought, if I could get it outside, it would live."

Five inches of Weber-Sichette's hair were singed, and she said she had burns on her arms "that I didn't even know I had until much later."

Three other horses, under the care of two other trainers, escaped after their stall doors were opened.

But In My Power was trapped behind a wall of fire.

"Her door was engulfed by flames. It was the only one we couldn't get opened," Weber-Sichette said.

There was nothing she or her husband could do. They gave her up for dead.

A distraught Weber-Sichette said she was in shock and had headed back to her house when "I thought I was seeing things. But here came this chestnut filly running toward me. I saw her white star, and I said to my husband, 'That can't be Crackers [In My Power's nickname]!' "

The filly was missing her eyelashes. She had burns across her back and on her face, and there was a big chunk of skin missing from her rump.

But, determined to live, she had kicked her way out of the burning stall and raced to freedom.

By the time Weber-Sichette's veterinarian, Dr. Bill Hawkins, arrived at the farm, In My Power was about to collapse from respiratory distress.

"She couldn't breathe," Hawkins said. "She was revived by oxygen equipment borrowed from the fire company."

Hawkins medicated the filly and put her and Tsultry Slew, another horse who survived the fire, on a van and alerted the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va., that the burn victims were on the way.

"When we got there about 3:30 a.m., they had the lights on and were ready for us," Weber-Sichette said.

Dr. Lucy Edens performed an emergency tracheotomy on In My Power.

"There was such severe edema of her nasal mucosa from breathing the hot air that she was almost unable to breathe through her nose," Edens said. Without the tracheotomy, she would have died. Horses, Edens said, can't breathe well through their mouths.

The smoke inhalation also had damaged her lower lungs, Edens said.

In My Power passed the initial crisis during the first 24 hours because doctors were able to control a lot of the progressive inflammation in her airways and lungs. "She had turned the corner and had progressed extremely well," Edens said.

Five days later, In My Power's condition deteriorated.

"Her temperature elevated. She had developed pneumonia in her lungs," Edens said. "It was something we had anticipated, but, of course, hoped wouldn't happen."

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