Ocean Downs barn burns, killing horse

Strong winds push a fast-moving fire at Worcester raceway

6 animals saved


BERLIN -- A fast-moving fire aided by strong winds destroyed a barn and killed one horse at the Bally's Ocean Downs raceway yesterday, officials said.

A security guard at the raceway saw the smoke and flames and alerted fire officials about 5:20 p.m. Almost immediately, trainers and other personnel moved to save the seven horses in Barn F, the most southern in a cluster of about a dozen barns on the grounds in Worcester County.

Six horses were led out safely. One fought to stay; the horse's body was found later in the charred rubble. The barn burned to the ground.

"This one just went so fast," said Sonny Heath, a security guard who has worked at Ocean Downs, the state's oldest harness track, for about eight years. "We didn't stop to try and hose down the building, we just got the horses out."

More than 100 firefighters from four departments brought the blaze under control in about two hours, said Bill Tilghman, chief of the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department. Winds at speeds between 10 and 15 mph quickly spread the fire, but firefighters were able to contain the blaze to one barn. The Worcester County fire marshal was investigating the cause of the blaze last night. A damage estimate was unavailable.

A security guard who helped evacuate the burned barn and two barns next to it was treated at Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin for a broken left shoulder and bruises to the face he suffered when a panicked horse knocked him to the ground, said Peter Szymanski, the Ocean Downs general manager.

"I think the instinct of the horse tells you that the stall is their home, and they don't want to leave their home," said Szymanski, who had rushed to the fire. "It's nature. It's just the way they are. They have a tendency to run back into the fire unless you get them and contain them into a safe place."

Carl Brenneman, who has worked at the track for 15 years, evacuated the three horses he cares for that were in a barn next to where the fire began.

"These old barns go up just like paper," Brenneman said. "If the wind had been from a different direction, we could have lost everything."

Reached at his home in Potomac last night, Bill Rickman, owner of Ocean Downs, called the incident a "tragedy," but he said he felt "fortunate" more damage was not done. He said there are 200 to 300 horses at the facility now, many fewer than the several hundred that are to arrive soon for opening day on Memorial Day weekend.nicole.fuller@baltsun.com


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