All of the horses that were housed in the Black Tie Stable when a fire broke out Wednesday evening have been accounted for, McHenry County officials said this morning.
Investigators are now certain that a total of 18 horses died in the blaze, while another 22 horses escaped, McHenry County Department of Health spokeswoman Debra Quackenbush said.
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"That's the final count," she said. "It's been determined there were 40 horses in the stable."
The two horses thought to be missing also have been found, though it's unclear exactly when they were picked up or by whom.
Fire and health department officials had difficulty pinning down how many horses were present in the stable near McHenry, putting the number anywhere from about 30 to 50 horses.
Equine lovers proudly admit they're of a different breed, and the loss of 18 horses in the harrowing stable fire has many struggling to cope.
But the tragedy has sparked a group of other stable owners, hoofed-animal activists and volunteers across Lake and McHenry counties to help the 22 horses that escaped.
Donna Ewing, director of the Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society in McHenry County, said the rescued horses are being tended to at various stables in Wauconda, Woodstock and McHenry.
"That fire was one of the worst, if not the worst fire I have ever seen," Ewing said. "Losing a horse is like losing a member of your family. It's a horrible situation to be in."
She said the stable owners have opened their paddocks to help the horse owners in the face of overwhelming tragedy.
Authorities said the cause of the five-alarm blaze that gutted the 20,000-square-foot stable is under investigation. 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, officials said.
Ewing said she transported two horses to a horse farm on Fairfield Road near Wauconda.
"The mare was unscathed by the fire, but we are unsure if the horse suffered any smoke inhalation or anything like that," she said. "It's so sad because the horses were totally helpless inside the stable and just couldn't escape. It went up like a tinderbox."
Another group of horses was taken to the John White Stables on East Wonder Lake Road near Woodstock.
Stable owner Lisa Jo White said she was contacted when the fire was raging, and she immediately hooked up a trailer and headed out. She said the horses she took in are doing well, though they reeked of smoke when they came in to the stables that night.
"Everyone groups together in a time of need like this," White said. "The people in the community came forward to help out yesterday, and the Arabian horse community around the nation have been calling and asking if there is anything they could do. The horse community is a great one."
While area stable owners volunteered to take horses in, others immediately stepped up to search for what was believed to be two or three missing horses. Those who know the area best say the treacherous terrain surrounding the Black Tie Stable made the search especially difficult and even dangerous.
Cmdr. Dan Bitton of the Air-One Emergency Response Coalition, with his helicopter providing the only light aside from the night sky, said he spotted the two horses late Wednesday with the help of thermal-imaging equipment.
He watched as two young female volunteers, chest deep in muck, attempted to trudge through the Volo Bog to reach them. The spooked horses took off, prompting the pilot's recommendation to suspend the search until morning.
"I didn't want the horse rescuers to have to be rescued themselves," Bitton said. "They were basically operating on adrenaline and a love of horses, but it was unsafe."
A second hourlong search Thursday morning proved fruitless. Bitton said there are patches of thick wooded areas across the several miles he covered, and fallen trees resembled horses in certain light.
Volunteer Brent Deppmeier, who said he used to hunt and ride in the area years ago, was also deterred by the terrain. He was concerned the horses could get stuck in the bog.
After navigating certain areas by foot became too difficult and ATVs got stuck, Deppmeier went to his farm near Woodstock and brought back a horse, figuring searching on horseback might work. He tracked two sets of horse tracks for a while but lost them at a paved road.
When he got back to the stable, he watched as McHenry Township officials brought in a loader to remove the corpses, which had been buried beneath charred rubble that continued to smolder Thursday.
"We want to do that with as much respect and dignity as possible," McHenry Township Fire Protection District Chief Tony Huemann said.
Huemann said it was humbling to watch so many people try to rescue the trapped horses amid such chaos.
The first two people to go into the barn after the structure caught fire were Shannon Weitzman, 21, of McHenry, and Madison Wallraf, 15, of Johnsburg. Weitzman estimated there were 40 horses inside the barn when the blaze ignited.
"Everything went up in flames so fast that we did all we could to get the horses out," she said. "We got out as many as we could."
Weitzman and Wallraf were treated and released from an area hospital for smoke inhalation Wednesday.
"I'm just mortified today," Weitzman said. "We got out as many of the horses that we could. You always hear about a situation like this, but you never expect that it would happen to you."
Quackenbush, the health department spokeswoman, said horseshoes are unique to each animal and will help identify the dead horses. Some owners will likely send DNA evidence to a laboratory for analysis, she added.
• Daily Herald staff writer Paul Biasco contributed to this report.