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31 Horses Die in Tragic Fire

By: Susan Rubinowitz

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On July 10, 2000, about 200 people – dozens of them children – attended a funeral for 31 horses on the grounds of the Oak Bridge Farms Stable in a Westchester, N.Y., town. Four days earlier, a barn in North Salem had gone up in flames, killing the animals trapped inside. Their child-owners, flanked by parents and clergymen, had come to the mass grave to say goodbye.

"Some of the children read poems or stories about their horses. I read a prayer from the Bible," says Mary Lou Benedetto, whose 16-year-old daughter, Joanna, lost her horse, "My daughter is totally shattered, totally," she says.

Questions of Safety

"It was heart-rending," town Supervisor Sy Globerman said after the ceremony. Questions about whether the deadly blaze was caused by unsafe conditions at the boarding stable linger. Globerman says fire officials are still investigating the cause. Oak Bridge Farms owner Kristine Ward was cited by the town's building department for several safety problems while the barn was under construction in the mid-1980s. And in the recent fatal blaze, the fire alarm in the barn failed to activate, explains Daniel Betterton, who was building inspector in North Salem until 1989.

"Obviously, something was wrong, because it was a passing motorist who called in the fire. The building was already involved," says Betterton, who is now the building inspector in neighboring town of Pound Ridge. "Unfortunately, none of these buildings, none, have had fire inspections since I left 10 years ago," he continues. Ward did not return calls.

Benedetti and other parents have said they plan to sue. Neither New York State nor Westchester County imposes standards for structures that house non-domestic animals. Those responsibilities are left to local governments. Globerman said the tragedy has spurred town supervisors to pick up the slack by drafting their own inspection code. But advocates for the health and safety of horses say standards for equine care and housing – including fire prevention – are lax in much of the country.

"The situation in New York is typical of what's done in other states," says Dr. Ellen Buck, a veterinarian who is also the director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. She says Maryland, where she owns a private horse farm, inspects commercial stables, but many states don't bother. "Certainly, we see various incidents of horses living in less than ideal conditions. ... It's a terrifying thing, the prospect of anything happening in the barn."

Tips for Barn Safety

The Humane Society is drafting a booklet on barn safety for the public. Meanwhile, Buck offers some cautions:

  • Prepare an evacuation route for your horses and hold fire drills. Make sure fire alarms are in working order. (Fire extinguishers don't work well in barns.)

  • Make sure you know your source for water in case of fire – the water line inside the barn won't be of much use if it's ablaze.

  • Remove overhead hay storage in the barn – a potential flashpoint for fire. Keep aisles free of clutter and sweep away cobwebs, which are flammable.

  • Don't smoke in or around barns. Although that's self-evident, Buck said, "I know of a lot of horse people who smoke in horse barns."

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