As a fast-moving fire swept through racehorse barns near a West Virginia track Monday, teams of trainers, track associates, and even people off the street who knew nothing of horses, converged to lead those they could to safety.
Working in the dark, horse trainer Elizabeth Meehan said she had to feel her way to find halters and shanks to harness the frightened horses and lead them out.
“It was pandemonium,” she said. “There were no lights on in the barn because all the power lines were down, and most of the horses didn’t have halters on.”
When Meehan arrived at the scene of the four-barn blaze across from Hollywood Casino Charles Town Races sometime around 5 a.m., the fire was already fully involved. Volunteers had already begun leading out horses when she asked, “What can I do?”
People were coming off the street to help, and firefighters also led a few horses to safety.
“The horses were pretty calm in the barn, but when they got outside and saw all the lights from fire trucks, they got pretty scared,” she said. “It’s like a blur. I was feeling around in the dark, and I knew I just had to get them out.”
In all, 26 horses were saved, but another 29 died in the multi-alarm fire adjacent to the race track, according to Independent Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Ed Smith.
“It was an inferno when we arrived,” Smith said. “I live about eight blocks away, and when I looked up, I saw a big glow in the sky.”
Smith said at least three alarms were pulled, possibly four, to call firefighters to the scene; however, the combination of dry weather and old, wood structures worked against them. The fire quickly destroyed four barns, he added. (Please read more coverage of the fire in The Herald-Mail).
Ken Lowe, president of Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association in West Virginia, credited track officials for their quick response in locating and cleaning out stables for the displaced horses.
“Management gave us a barn, and they were able to clean it out in five or six hours using a Bobcat,” Lowe said. “They brought in hay, three days worth of food, and got the water turned on.”
He added, “It was a great effort. When I arrived at the scene at 7 a.m. the track superintendent came over to me and said, ‘What do you need?’ ”
Lowe said it was remarkable the way everyone worked together to save so many horses.
Although the fire is under investigation by the Sate Fire Marshal’s Office, Lowe and Smith said the conditions—months without rain and aged facilities—were unfortunately, just right for a fire.
Said Lowe, “It’s a sad, sad thing. I can’t put it in the best perspective yet because it so tragic.”
Meehan, who was among the first to call 911 that morning, said when she first noticed the thick, black smoke, she thought it must be a car fire. Walking toward it, she saw flames shooting out from large windows at a corner of a barn. Then she started to run. By the time she managed to navigate her way to the scene, which was in a fenced-in area across the street from her barn, the fire had fully engulfed the structure.
“As I ran over and past the fire, the heat was so intense,” she said. Arriving on the scene, her friends pointed her toward a barn not touched by fire, and that’s where she joined in the effort to free horses.
“We took them out one at a time.”