Heroic rescuers help narrowly avert complete devastation in First Line barn fire

More than 26 years after Joe Stutzman lost half his stable in the devastating Mohawk Barn 3 fire, a barn at his First Line Training Centre caught fire early Friday morning claiming five horses trained by Mark Steacy. Yet, it could have been much worse without some quick-thinking, quick-acting horsepeople and favorable weather conditions.


by Dave Briggs

Rushing toward the burning barn in the early hours of Friday morning, Joe Stutzman felt his stomach twist violently. He had been through this before and he knew the likelihood of saving horses in Barn 1 at his First Line Training Centre in Milton, ON was not high.

“You have flashbacks of exactly what goes on in these things,” Stutzman said Saturday evening, just 10 miles down the road from Mohawk Racetrack where more than 26 years ago six of his 12 horses were killed in the Barn 3 fire that claimed 69 horses worth an estimated $2 million.

“It was the same thing. You’re outside the barn and you know you can’t go in but you hear the horses (panicking).

“That,” said Stutzman struggling for words, “That’s… a bad feeling.

“I tried the light switch and the lights didn’t come on and smoke was coming out. I said, ‘You can’t go in. I just know how fast fires go. The barn is already engaged and I know within minutes it’ll go ‘whoosh’ like that.’”

Though five horses died Friday in the fire — two in the blaze and three later euthanized by vets due to the extent of their injuries — Stutzman, who trained the winners of some $35 million before buying First Line 10 years ago, said the blessing is 35 horses were rescued thanks to a mixture of heroism, quick thinking and luck.

“Obviously, it could’ve been a lot worse. When I was first on the scene, I thought it was going to be a lot worse,” Stutzman said.

The first thing in their favor was the fact that Hugh Fitzpatrick was sleeping in a trailer near the barn.

Stutzman said early indications from both his insurance company and the fire marshal is that the fire started from a short in the cord on the block heater of a front loader parked outside the barn. The short sparked and the front loader caught fire. The fire blew the front loader’s tires, which woke Fitzpatrick.

“He heard a big bang, an explosion, then another smaller one and he went out and checked it. He said you could actually feel it in the trailer,” said Stutzman, who was just heading for bed around 1:30 a.m. when he heard what he thought was a madman banging on his front door. “Of course, you’re in a panic and in the rush you’re not thinking. I thought, ‘What the heck is going on!?’ I opened the door and he was outside there and he told me. I dialed 911 right away as I went out to the barn to have a look,” Stutzman said.

The Halton Hills Fire Department arrived first, followed by the Milton Fire Department. In all, 10 trucks and 50 firefighters fought the blaze.

“We were very lucky because it was raining pretty hard at the time,” Stutzman said. “The wind was in the correct direction, away from the barn. If the wind had been the other way or if it hadn’t been raining, there wouldn’t have been a chance.”

Stutzman’s initial reaction — that there wasn’t a chance — is the first thing he told trainer Shawn Steacy who rushed to the farm and called his father, Mark, to deliver the bad news.

“At first when I got the call from Shawn, it sounded like everything was gone,” Mark said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve lost everything here.’

“The hardest part for me was that at 1:30 in the morning… I was actually in Lansdowne and had to drive four hours (west, through Toronto) to get (to First Line). Then, on the way up, I’m phoning all my owners, especially the owners that own multiple horses to tell them that their horses could be gone. It was a really hard thing to do… I was expecting that we didn’t have anything left.”

Little did he know, but a rescue effort was underway thanks to the firefighters and some brave horsepeople.

“Kudos to the firefighters. There’s no question about it. They arrived on the scene and one guy said, ‘Well, I know horses, so I’ll go in.’ Then, simultaneously, they got the fire kind of under control,” Stutzman said. Steacy caretaker Scott Lecain, along with Trev Forgie, Rebecca and Steve Titus and Riley McGilloway are just some of the people credited with going into the burning barn with firefighters to pull horses out.

“I guess Scotty (Lecain) went in with the firemen,” Stutzman said. “The firefighters had their breathing apparatus on and their flashlights.”

Meanwhile, Mark Steacy was getting sporadic updates, each one a little better than the last.

“As I got farther up the highway, it was ‘We got this horse out, we got that horse out.’ So it was getting a little more positive on the way up,” Mark said.

“There’s a lot of people (to thank), for instance Scotty Lecain who works for me. He was in there and the fire fighters were yelling at him to get out of there. He was putting his life on the line to save these horses.”

Howard Pearce, the manager of the Landmark Racing Stable, a fractional ownership group operated through Steacy’s stable, said, “it was just phenomenal how these guys went in continuously — went in and got another horse, went back in and got another horse.”

Stutzman said he’s just thankful so many horses were saved, “for Steacy’s sake.”

After all, Stutzman knows what it’s like to start over after a tragedy, even though he counts himself lucky that former Mohawk security guard Victor Rodriguez was able to save half of his stable in April of 1992, including top horse Abdul Kerim that helped Stutzman rebound.

“The biggest thing for me personally that came out of the fire was my eyes were really opened as to the generosity of people,” Stutzman said in 2002 in a Canadian Sportsman story looking back on the 10th anniversary of the Mohawk fire.

That same generosity was apparent when 43 standardbreds died in a fire at Classy Lane Stables in Puslinch, ON in early January of 2016 — and is showing itself again.

“The horsemen are so good that way,” Stutzman said. “It was amazing, everybody chipped in and did everything they could during the night. They were getting horses out, taking them to the door and putting them in other stalls, in the shedrows, in the other paddocks.”

Vets quickly volunteered to help care for the horses and Woodbine Mohawk Park took in Steacy’s horses and told him he could stay as long as he needed.

“They’ve been so good,” Mark said of Woodbine. “They told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, whatever you need just ask us.’”

Steacy horses that were killed were: 3-year-old Somebeachsomewhere filly Pearl Blue Chip (a winner of nearly $100,000), 2-year-old Sunshine Beach filly Mademoiselle Tammy, 2-year-old Kadabra gelding Rap Royalty and two homebred filly yearlings — Miss Wheely and Irma.

“Pearl Blue Chip, she was a nice filly that won in :51. That was a big loss. Even as a broodmare, she had lots of value as a broodmare,” Mark said, adding that he is doing well emotionally, so far.

“Shawn really took it hard, but myself I think I’ve been holding up pretty well, but I don’t know that it’s really sunk into me yet,” Mark said.

Nine horses remain in the equine hospital at the University of Guelph recovering from suspected smoke inhalation.

“None of them are life threatening at this point, which is really good. My biggest concern right now is that all of these horses really got a lot of smoke inhalation and how that’s going to affect them,” Mark said. “We really might not find out for sure until they get racing, right? Nobody really knows that and the vets don’t know, so that’s my big concern right now, just the lungs and hopefully it hasn’t taken away the chance for them to be what they are supposed to be.

Mark said he expects the impact of the fire to be felt for a long time.

“Financially, it’s going to really kick us in the pants. Actually, we’re just cleaning out the mess here right now and I’ve lost a lot of harnesses and feed and all kinds of things like that, supplies… my vet bills are going to be so high. Financially, it’s going to hurt for a while, but we’ll get through it.

The Central Ontario Standardbred Association (COSA) that raised over $700,000 to aid those impacted by the Classy Lane fire, has started a GoFundMe campaign to help those affected by the First Line fire (available here).

Pearce said, “there’s tons of people looking for ways to help. When I do a Landmark email, it goes to 112 people, so it’s overwhelming how many people have asked how they can help or make donations. They have asked me what Mark needs in the way of equipment or help in the way of clean up… it’s just an enormous outpouring of love and support, I guess that’s the way to phrase it.”

“That’s one thing about horse racing,” Mark said. “We talk about each other when we race against each other, but when tragedy comes, they are all there for you.”