The cause of a massive barn fire that killed at least seven horses Wednesday is still under investigation. More than a dozen people within the tight-knit horse community continue to stand by what's left of the charred stable today, sections of which are still smoking. And the search continues for missing horses.
Battillion Chief Mike Majercik of the McHenry Township Fire Protection District said at least seven horses are dead and three remain missing after the five-alarm fire destroyed the 20,000-square-foot Black Tie Stable at 101 W. Bay Road at about 5 p.m. Wednesday.
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Majercik said while a definite cause of the fire hasn't been pinpointed at this point, investigators are focusing on a controlled burn that took place near the stable earlier Wednesday and a charcoal barbecue that was in the vicinity of where the fire sparked.
In addition to working to determine the cause of the fire, investigators are going about the difficult task of determining how to remove the still-undetermined number of horse corpses.
"We want to figure out how to remove the bodies with as much respect and dignity as possible," McHenry Township Fire Protection District Chief Tony Huemann said.
Conservation police are driving around the area south of the stable and near the Volo Bog. An Air One helicopter with thermal imaging equipment searched Wednesday night located a few horses, but searchers on the ground were unable to corral them in. A second air search this morning proved unsuccessful, as well, with no horses spotted. There was some talk about searchers going into the woods by horseback.
There were 31 horses boarded inside the barn at stable, which also features an arena in the center, said McHenry Township Fire District Lt. Tom Ruggero.
The horses that were evacuated during the blaze are being stabled in other barns near where the blaze ignited, Majercik said.
When Terry Upton of Johnsburg spotted the black smoke as he turned on Bay Road, he knew the stable was ablaze before ever seeing it. He drove straight to the barn where his wife's and daughter's horse was kept.
As he was running into the burning building he spotted a young girl taking his horse outside but continued forward.
"It started burning so fast. I started going down the hall opening up the stalls," he said. "I got three horses out. Two of them got outside."
Ingleside resident Tricia Willis spotted the back of the barn on fire from the roadway. "I pulled my truck around, got out and started freeing horses," she said at the scene.
She said she freed at least 10 horses as the fire began to consume the building, but the conditions inside became too dangerous.
She said five horses were trapped on the side of the barn that burned, and two or three were in the corral when she left.
Two people were injured in the blaze, authorities said, and were treated for smoke inhalation on Wednesday. They have since been released from area hospitals, authorities said.
Upton was returning from a rehab session for his lungs when he spotted the fire, but that did not stop him from entering the smoky, stall-lined corridor.
"I can barely breathe anyhow. I had a lung operation," he said. "You do what your instincts tell you to do."
The thick smoke filled the hallways inside the building quickly, and there was little time to act as more and more people showed up at the fiery scene.
"When I first got in there it had already started burning from the apartment into the big arena," he said. "It's just hard to believe that it moved so fast through that place."
Upton's daughter was on the phone with her horse's trainer Thursday night, relieved that her horse Cash had made it out alive. But they went down a list of her friend's horses -- one of them didn't make it, and the trainer said close to 12 others had died.
An owner who kept her horse in the stable said that on a normal day about 50 horses would have been inside the stable.
"There are some horses that are boarded there, some train there," said Brittany Johnson. "Ninety percent of the barn is show horses."
Another horse owner said the fire was sparked at a terrible time because horses are usually brought inside by 5 p.m.
"I heard about it on the radio and called my trainer and came down here as soon as I could," Johnson said.
"I pretty much knew what I was walking into, but it's still incredibly scary."
There is an emergency response team of horse owners and veterinarians in place to respond to rescue situations such as Wednesday night's, said
Karen Nolan-Gibrick, who boards horses in Union.
She was on her way to the blaze after seeing it on the news and had spoken to her veterinarian, who was also on the way.
Nolan-Gibrick said a few horse rescue organizations have medical units that also help at emergency situations.