Coping in the Wake of Fair Hill Barn Fire

by Sandra McKee

The sight is devastating. Charred posts and jagged pieces of tin are jutting into the air from the blackened remains of what was a 40-stall horse barn on the peaceful rolling hills of the Fair Hill Training Center.

Just to the left of one of those contorted tin pieces lay the remains of a horse, one of 24 charred masses still in their stalls after a raging fire that destroyed the barn owned by Bruce Jackson and his partner, Buddy Jones, on Training Center Drive the evening of Nov. 1. Only four of the 28 horses stabled there survived.

Jackson, who lives in Oxford, Pa., five minutes from the barn, arrived shortly after 7 p.m. the evening of the fire. Though still in a daze the following day, h seemed to have his emotions in check. Jones and his daughter Kelly, however, saw the scene for the first time about 1 p.m. the day after the fire. They had driven 16 hours from Dade City, Fla., and though they talked nonstop about what they might see over those hours, "nothing we imagined was as horrible as this," Buddy Jones said.

Kelly Jones, 26, had worked at the barn last year, and as she climbed from their vehicle, she began to cry

"I knew these horses," she said later, barely able to voice the words before her emotions again overwhelmed her.

The last time the Maryland horse community experienced such a disaster was Feb. 22, 2004, when 25 show horses died in a fire at Summerwind Farm, a Montgomery County training facility for competition Quarter Horses. On Nov. 2, firemen were still hosing down the Fair Hill barn, as the winds stirred the ashes and the state fire officials inspected the scene.

Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor said officials had yet to determine where the fire began, the first step in identifying the cause. He said arson could neither be confirmed nor ruled out. He also said the horses apparently died of smoke inhalation, and he estimated total damages at $1.9 million, including the horses, building, and contents.

Though Dr. Katherine Anderson, owner of the Equine Veterinary Care Center at Fair Hill and president of the Fair Hill Condominium Association, said most of the horses were "blue collar," there were some with potential, including Virginia Bidder, sired by Spectacular Bid, winner of the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. The colt was one of 11 lost by Jackson.

Sandy Horner, who owns the Fair Hill Tack Shop and who lost Come For Tea, her 2-year-old filly by Allen's Prospect, said no matter what success the horses had had, they were special to the people who trained and owned them.

"When you have a small operation, the horses are like your family," she said, fighting back tears.

Tammy Burlin, senior technician and office manager at the Equine Veterinary Care office, was one of the first to see the fire. When she turned left out of the clinic's driveway shortly after 6:30 p.m., she noticed a little glow in the sky and thought someone was having a bonfire. As she rounded the next turn, she looked to her left and what she saw, about a quarter mile away as the crow flies, made her gasp.

"It was an inferno," she said.

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

"I jumped from my car and ran toward the barn," Burlin said. "Mike screamed for me to stay back. 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."

But Burlin had been in that barn before to treat the animals, and she immediately asked Rea if anyone had been around back. He said there hadn't been, and she was off to check the out-of-view stalls.

A day after the fire, Burlin had a small burn on her left hand she received when she lifted the outside latch to reach the four horses she and Rea were able to rescue.

"They were in the stalls and lucky we got there when we did," she said. "No one else knew they were there, and 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."