Horse owners mourn after stable fire

Tragedy: Many make an emotional journey to the site of a Montgomery County barn blaze that killed 25 horses Sunday.

February 24, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

DAMASCUS - By lunchtime yesterday, Victor Gilson was too anxious to sit still anymore. The Bridgeton, N.J., school superintendent took the rest of the day off and drove 135 miles to rural Montgomery County to see the place where his 5-year-old horse died in a fire early Sunday morning.

"The longer I sat there, the more I felt that I needed to be here," said Gilson, whose reddish-colored paint horse, along with 24 other show horses, perished in the blaze that devastated Summerwind Farm, a well-known training facility for competition quarter horses.

Fire investigators, who said the cause of the fire does not appear to be suspicious, estimate damages could amount to $500,000 or more. Owners who made the pilgrimage to the grim site talked about the fire's emotional toll - borne by themselves and by the surviving horses.

About a dozen horses in a neighboring barn escaped unharmed, but many were showing signs of a sort of post-traumatic stress, such as pacing in their stalls, owners and veterinarians said. Owners like Gilson, who wandered about the still-smoldering wreckage yesterday afternoon, compared the day to a funeral.

"We all just sort of walked around and consoled each other," Gilson said. "I know there's really nothing I can do here, but I'm here anyway. I guess it's just part of the mourning process."

Upon learning about the fire, owner Robert LaPorta flew home Sunday from Tampa, Fla., where he had been participating in a horseback competition. LaPorta, who has owned and operated his farm on Moxley Road for more than 15 years, is a nationally known champion in the sport of reining, which derives from the agile maneuvers required of cattle-herding.

He would not talk to reporters yesterday, but he released a statement saying that he and his wife, Debby, had "never experienced anything so tragic and are at a loss as how best to describe such a devastating event."

The LaPortas lost three horses - Highrise Enterprise, Spark This Jac and Cielo Olena - in the fire.

Summerwind Farm is one of a handful of stables that specialize in western-style riding, such as reining, in a state where racing and English-style riding are more common, said Beverly Raymond, a stable inspector for the Maryland Horse Industry Board.

Raymond, who has done annual inspections of Summerwind for several years, said the farm was always "above our standards. The horses were kept very nicely."

The 6 a.m. blaze drew about 90 firefighters from Montgomery, Howard, Frederick and Carroll counties. Firefighters weren't aware that there were horses in the stable, said Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire Department. It was almost fully engulfed when firefighters arrived, he said.

Investigators spent most of Sunday sifting through the rubble and trying to determine a cause. Detection dogs turned up no signs of gasoline or any other such accelerant, Piringer said.

"It's a process of elimination at this point," he said. "We're looking at possible electrical causes."

Yesterday, as news of the fire spread among the close-knit horse reining community, phone calls poured into the Oklahoma City headquarters of the National Reining Horse Association from people offering to help. In Maryland, friends, neighbors and strangers pitched in to help the LaPortas.

"It's such a huge tragedy," said Carol Trimmer, an association spokeswoman. "It's just like it happened to your family, because everyone is just so close."

The owners of another Summerwind Farm - this one in Frederick County and not affiliated with the Damascus property - have fielded so many calls that they took a bundle of messages and refreshments to their namesakes yesterday.

Even as firefighters were still extinguishing the blaze Sunday, neighbors came bearing armloads of hay and grain to donate to the surviving horses.

And owners - about 50 horses were boarded there before the blaze - flocked to the property to grieve.

Montgomery Village resident Linda McKenna and her 14-year-old son T.J. spent yesterday afternoon trying to calm their 5-year-old chocolate-colored horse, Dunny, who apparently witnessed the blaze from his stall in the barn that did not catch fire.

"He saw everything," Linda McKenna said, her voice cracking as she teared up. "He felt the heat."

Trapped in his stall, Dunny dug two holes as he tried to escape, McKenna said. He hadn't stopped pacing in his stall yesterday afternoon.

Damascus veterinarian Michael Erskine, one of whose equine patients perished in the Summerwind blaze, said horses that survive a fire sometimes exhibit abnormal behavior, such as depression.

"It could take a while for the horse to recover psychologically," Erskine said.

It may be a while for the LaPortas to recover, too, said Emily Daignault, a horse lover who was acting as a spokeswoman for the family.

About 3:30 p.m. yesterday, just before crews began removing huge scraps of twisted, charred metal and the dead horses, Daignault said the LaPortas were committed to building another barn and continuing to board horses.

"This is their passion," she said. "But beyond the passion and love, it's also a business."

Sun staff writer Laura Loh contributed to this article.

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