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29 horses died in Charles Town fire

evidence taken from scene

Investigators have not ruled out possibility that fire was a criminal act

September 07, 2010|By DON AINES and MATTHEW UMSTEAD
  • Henry Burrows, left, and Jeremy Weaver comb through rubble Tuesday in Charles Town, W.Va., at the site of Monday's fire that destroyed barns and killed horses. The fire occurred on property behind the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. Weaver lost four horses in the fire, and Burrows lost a horse he had just acquired Sunday.
Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- The number of racehorses killed in Monday's fire that destroyed three barns and heavily damaged a fourth behind Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races was increased to 29 on Tuesday, and investigators said they have not ruled out the possibility that the fire was the result of a criminal act.

"There's been some evidence taken from the scene that might show indications of a criminal act, but we're not labeling it as that at this time, until we can confirm a few things," Assistant State Fire Marshal Patrick Barker said Tuesday. "There's still a mound of people we have to talk to."

The fire was called in to 911 at 4:41 a.m. Monday, but there were people at the scene who saw smoke and flames as early as 4:20 a.m., and it might have been spotted even earlier, Barker said. People were trying to rescue horses before a 911 call was made, he said.

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The barns, along Race Track Street across 5th Avenue from the track's parking garage, were not secured buildings and there were no overnight security personnel at the scene, Barker said. However, horse owners and others sometimes spend the night nearby, he said.

Independent Fire Co. Chief Ed Smith said Tuesday that a firefighter and one of the people trying to rescue horses had minor injuries. Both were treated at Jefferson Memorial Hospital and released, he said.

"The investigation is still ongoing. It'll be several weeks before a final report is issued by the (West Virginia) Fire Marshal's Office," Smith said.

Twenty-six horses were rescued from the barns, and some were transferred to a barn owned by the race track, officials said Monday.

Barn owner Stephen Spears, who rented stalls to seven horse trainers/owners, said he doesn't have the money to rebuild the structure that he and his father, who died last year, owned for more than 30 years. Only one of 26 horses stabled in his barn survived, Spears said.

"I've lost a big income," Spears said Tuesday.

Ronney Brown, a leading horse trainer and owner at the track, said Tuesday that he lost seven horses in the fire. Brown trained five of the horses through part-ownership agreements and trained the other two for clients. The horses were worth about $50,000, Brown said.

"I was just in shock," the Frederick, Md., native said. "I still am."

Freddie Johnson of Berryville, Va., said all but two horses in his two barns were rescued. He said he rented stalls to about six trainers.

Johnson estimated it would cost $200,000 to $250,000 to replace one of his barns, a wooden structure that he said might have been nearly 100 years old. He estimated it could cost $150,000 to repair his other barn, which was damaged but still standing Tuesday.

Johnson said he sold one of the barns that was destroyed to a woman who lives in Florida.

Lenny Hale, executive director of the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, said horsemen groups in Virginia and Maryland, as well as the national HBPA organization, have offered assistance.

"It doesn't make it easier if it was just one" horse that died, Hale said.

A fund has been established to help people with what they have lost, Hale said.

Hale, Johnson and Spears said they appreciated the assistance of racing officials at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, which opened a previously closed barn it owns next to the structures that burned.

Erich Zimny, director of racing operations for the race track, said 15 to 20 horses were being kept in the barn.

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