TALES FROM THE TRAILS
It’s too horrible to imagine — every horse owner’s worst nightmare. Around midnight on Wednesday, March 16, a barn at the South Florida Trotting Center, located at 7563 State Road 7 in suburban Lake Worth, caught fire and burned, killing 12 horses and seriously injuring others.
The Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Investigations Division and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Bomb/Arson Squad ruled it an accidental fire, determining that an unspecified electrical malfunction caused a catastrophic failure at the meter, causing flames and sparks to ignite hay, feed and other combustible materials that were stored nearby.
“It’s a terrible tragedy, which could occur to anybody,” Capt. Albert Borroto of Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue said. “We did a thorough investigation. Everything was up to code. It wasn’t as if someone left a hot plate plugged in or a space heater overturned.”
The darkness made the situation more difficult than if it had been the middle of the day.
“As our trucks pulled in, there were loose horses running around. We’re sensitive to the equine community,” Borroto said. “We train to handle large animals, but sometimes the situation is beyond control. I know the horses were like family members. It was an unfortunately tragedy.”
Dr. Michael Carinda, a veterinarian who has an office on the property, found himself in the middle of the tragedy.
“It was chaotic. Everyone came together and helped in whatever way they could. Fortunately, a lot of people were on hand. Pompano Race Track races at night. The 10th race goes at 10:30 p.m., and afterward, the horses are shipped back to the barns here. So vans and trailers were just pulling in when the fire broke out,” Carinda said. “I triaged the injured horses, put them in empty stalls in unaffected barns, and administered anti-inflammatory drugs as well as antibiotics and pain meds. Some were horribly hurt, some not so bad. They’d all suffered burns and smoke inhalation, which can quickly lead to inhalation pneumonia.”
Carinda then summoned assistance.
“I called Reid & Associates, a veterinary clinic in Loxahatchee Groves with a hyperbaric chamber, and told them to get everyone they could, because I’d be sending 11 horses,” he recalled. “As the vans and trailers pulled into the training center, I told the drivers, ‘Don’t even turn off your engines.’ They unloaded their horses, then we loaded the injured horses and sent them in a caravan to Reid & Associates.”
Carinda explained that although the barn was of concrete block construction, the wooden roof beams caught fire and collapsed into the stalls.
“The fire sucked all the oxygen up and out, plus burning wood gives off carbon dioxide, so you’re battling both oxygen depletion and carbon dioxide poisoning, along with burns,” he said. “The hyperbaric chamber infuses them with massive amounts of oxygen, and can be a lifesaver in cases like this. It helps the skin and lungs heal. The worst horses took turns all through the night, spending an hour at a time in the chamber. We’re so grateful they have this vital resource.”
There were a lot of heroes that night, Carinda said.
“The horses didn’t want to leave their stalls, even though the barn was burning. They consider the stalls their sanctuary. It’s all they know,” he said. “We had people pulling horses out and shutting the stall doors afterward so they couldn’t get back in. It was so hot, the metal gates melted. One guy passed out, another got burned. Sally, a Staffordshire terrier, barked at the horses we got out and kept nipping at their heels and back legs, chasing them away from the fire. We managed to get 11 out, but the other 12 perished. The fire was too intense. We just couldn’t reach them.”
The day after the fire, a groom showed up at Dr. Byron Reid’s clinic to check on the survivors. She had driven out to the training center that morning, not knowing about the tragedy. “It was dark and foggy as usual. I thought the fog was extra heavy as I got there, then realized it was smoke,” she said. “My four girls, the fillies I cared for, are gone. I’m here to find out how Macy’s Big Boy is doing. I was told he’s in very bad shape.”
The staff at Reid’s clinic had a list of people who could visit the horses, and this groom wasn’t on it. However, they checked and told her that the horse was doing well. “Thank you,” she said through tears. “For me personally, it’s OK not to see him. I hope he’ll be OK.”
Billy Haughton, whose brother Tommy lost eight horses, was devastated. “Tommy lost everything. He’s wiped out,” he said. “And there’s no insurance. Neither the horses nor the barns were insured. I don’t know what Tommy’s going to do. This whole thing’s a terrible tragedy, just devastating.”
Billy, an insurance agent, advised other horse owners to get some insurance on their horses. “You should consider getting what’s called a limited peril policy. It covers FLT — fires, lightning and transportation. It’s inexpensive and covers tragedies such as this, along with lightning strikes and hauling accidents.”
Ironically, the day before the fire, Bonded Lightning of Jupiter had given a talk at the Winter Equestrian Festival about lightning protection. Michael Dillon stressed how important it is to protect structures such as barns, especially here in Florida, the lightning capital of the United States.
“Lightning has a mind of its own. It’s unpredictable,” Dillon said. “It can travel miles in seconds and strike out of the blue.”
Lightning also occasionally kills horses in fields and can travel through the ground, trees and fences. Dillon said it’s not unusual to see a whole line of dead cattle who stood too close to a fence when lightning struck.
Lightning, however, didn’t cause this fire.
“It was a tragic accident that could have happened anywhere,” Carinda said. “Every barn should have a sprinkler system. That could have made the difference. Tommy lost eight of his 10 horses, along with all his equipment, everything. There’s not even a feed bucket left.”
People were organizing ways to help. Rochelle Gohlich, a good friend of Tommy Haughton, attended the regular Thursday Lunch & Learn at WEF. After the scheduled lecture, she talked briefly about the fire, the scene of which she had just visited.
“I’m in shock. The whole barn burned down. It’s terrible,” she said. “Everyone can help. There are a few fundraising sites and events, including a barbecue and silent auction fundraiser at County Line Feed.”
“We have to help them,” said Cherise Desiderio, manager at County Line Feed. “Tommy Haughton and Roman Lopez are not just customers, they’re good friends. These men lost their horses, their equipment and their livelihoods. This is so sad and tragic for everyone.”
The BBQ fundraiser will be held Saturday, March 26 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“We’re selling barbecue for $5 a plate and holding a silent auction. We hope a lot of people will donate items for the auction, and more will come and bid,” Desiderio said. “We need to come together as a community and help each other.”
For more information about the fundraiser, call County Line Feed at (561) 204-4884.