Horse Owners Stunned By Loss

Officials investigate a Tuesday evening blaze that killed 24 thoroughbreds at a training facility near Elkton in Cecil County

November 03, 2005|By MICHAEL DRESSER AND SANDRA MCKEE | MICHAEL DRESSER AND SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTERS

FAIR HILL -- As heartbroken owners grieved the loss of beloved horses, state fire investigators sifted through the charred remains of a Cecil County stable to determine the cause of a fast-burning fire that killed 24 thoroughbreds valued at about $1 million.

Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor said officials had yet to determine where the fire began Tuesday evening at the Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton - the first step in identifying the cause. He said arson could neither be confirmed nor ruled out.

firefighters were hosing down the barn yesterday as the winds stirred up ashes and the state fire marshal inspected the scene. The fire left jagged pieces of tin and charred wooden posts where a 40-stall horse barn had stood.

Only four of the 28 horses stabled there survived.

Buddy Jones, a co-owner of the stable, drove 16 hours with his daughter from his home in Dade City, Fla., and arrived about 1 p.m. yesterday. He said that even though they talked during the trip about what they might see, "nothing we imagined was as horrible as this."

His daughter, Kelly Jones, 26, broke into tears as she climbed from the SUV. "I knew these horses," she said.

The death toll was a revision of Tuesday night's estimate that 31 horses died in the fire at the barn known as Chevation IV - one of the 17 privately owned barns on state-owned land at the equestrian complex.

But the downward revision was little consolation to those whose animals perished.

Ingrid Gsottschneider, of Saratoga Sunrise Farm in Ocala, Fla., said in a telephone interview from her home that she was in "very bad shape" after learning that two of her horses, 3-year-old Bella Bette and 5-year-old Louie The Stew, had died.

"I loved my horses. They were my life," she said. Louie The Stew, a black colt with a white blaze, had one win and one third-place finish in seven starts for career earnings of $39,490. Bella Bette was a bay filly with a white star on her forehead who had yet to race.

Sara Eames, a retired database administrator living in Malad, Idaho, lost a horse she had raised since birth - Sixteen Guns.

"We've been crying all night and all day," she said yesterday. "He's just a nice little horse. I mean, he was."

A glow in the sky

Tammy Burlin was one of the first to see the fire. It was shortly after 6:30 p.m., about 90 minutes after she should have locked up and left the Equine Veterinary Care office where she works as a senior technician and office manager.

As Burlin turned left out of the clinic's driveway, she noticed a glow in the sky and thought someone was having a bonfire. As she rounded the next turn, she saw the flames a quarter-mile away.

"It was an inferno," she said.

Burlin called 911 and stepped on the gas. When she got to the burning barn, she saw Mike Rea, a trainer who had seen the smoke from a nearby barn.

"I jumped from my car and ran toward the barn," Burlin said. "The blaze was so hot and the barn was silent, except you could hear the flames howling. Thank God, there was no screaming or kicking [from the horses]. They were already dead, and it hadn't been long."

Yesterday, she had a small burn on her left hand from when she lifted the outside latch to reach the four horses that she and Rea were able to rescue.

"They were in the stalls and lucky we got there when we did," she said. "The poor things were huddled in the back of the stall, as far as possible from the heat. We got them out just before the roof collapsed."

The remaining 24 could not be saved and apparently died of smoke inhalation, said Taylor, the deputy state fire marshal. He put the total damages at $1.9 million, including the horses, building and contents.

The dead horses included a colt sired by Spectacular Bid, winner of the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

That colt, Virginia Bidder, was one of 11 in the barn being trained by Bruce C. Jackson. All of them, including Gsottschneider's two horses, were killed along with 13 in stalls leased to other trainers.

Jackson, co-owner with Jones of the company that owns the ruined building, seemed dazed yesterday as he stood outside the barn.

"It's just a trying, horrible situation. Words fail you with something like this," Jackson said. "You feel for the horses. You hope it wasn't long for them."

According to Sally Goswell, who manages the Fair Hill center, it was not.

"The thing went in a matter of minutes - totally flattened, nothing left," she said.

According to a time line released by the center, the fire was spotted at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday and the emergency call was made within two minutes. But by 6:50, after the four horses were rescued, there were no signs of life from the remaining animals. Five minutes later, the roof collapsed.

Taylor said the 3-alarm fire was put out about 90 minutes after more than 100 firefighters from Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania had arrived.

No smoke alarm

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