Fire officials: Cause of stable fire that killed 18 horses, 'accidental unknown'

A firefighter works to extinguish a fire Wednesday evening at Black Tie Stable in unincorporated McHenry County near just south of Pistakee Lake.
A firefighter works to extinguish a fire Wednesday evening at Black Tie Stable in unincorporated McHenry County near just south of Pistakee Lake.
See images from the scene of Wednesday's fire

McHENRY – Fire investigators declared Friday morning that the cause of a Wednesday stable fire that claimed the lives of 18 horses was accidental but unknown.

"We have speculation that it could have been a [charcoal] grill, and there is speculation there was an outside controlled burn in the area, but we can't confirm either one of those 100 percent ... so we will not make a declaration that either one of them was the cause," said Tony Huemann, chief of the McHenry Township Fire Department.

"As additional information comes forward, we reserve the right to change that declaration," he added.

The five-alarm fire razed the Black Tie Stable at 101 W. Bay Road in unincorporated McHenry County east of Johnsburg on Wednesday evening and what was left of the building was still smoldering early Thursday afternoon.

Authorities with the McHenry County Department of Health confirmed Friday that 40 horses in total were housed in the stable at the time the fire broke out, shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday.

"We still are confirming 18 horses dead," said Debra Quackenbush, spokeswoman for the health department.

"Twenty-two were saved and that is now a full accounting ... the surviving horses are all in good health," she said.

Many were Arabian horses, Quackenbush said. Experts Thursday and Friday began using dental records, DNA testing and hoofprints to help identify those lost in the fire.

There were 64 horse stalls inside the Black Tie Stable, but only 40 of them were used, Quackenbush said.

"The remainder were used for hay storage and there was also some farm equipment including gasoline tanks," she said.


McHENRY – Authorities raised the horse death count from a Wednesday stable fire to 18 as the search continued for several missing horses.

Investigators are still working to determine the cause of the five-alarm fire that razed the Black Tie Stable at 101 W. Bay Road in unincorporated McHenry County east of Johnsburg. What was left of the building was still smoldering early Thursday afternoon as horse owners huddled on the edge of the property behind yellow police tape.

McHenry County Animal Control raised the death toll twice Thursday, more than double the seven horses believed to have been killed late Wednesday night, McHenry County Department of Health spokeswoman Debra Quackenbush said.

She and other health officials spent Thursday calling area stables that offered to take in displaced horses in an effort to get an accurate count on the total number of horses on the property at the time of the fire. Varying reports from fire and health officials and owners at the scene had put the number at 31 or 45. Preliminary reports stated that 22 or 24 horses were rescued by stable workers and a number of good Samaritans who rushed in to help.

Animal Control officials on Thursday afternoon lowered the number of horses believed escaped from three to two.

"We're experiencing the same frustrations everyone else is trying to get the exact number of horses on the property," Quackenbush said.

Horses that died in the fire, which included several foals, will be identified through their DNA and hoof prints, Quackenbush said. The stable offers training for Arabian show horses, according to its website. Owner and trainer Richard Wright, who the site said has owned the stable since 1979, could not be reached for comment.

McHenry Township Fire Protection District Chief Huemann said the fire started in the southeast corner of the stable, which was 250 feet long by 130 feet wide and about one and a half stories high. It quickly grew to the point that at least 21 fire departments were needed to help put it out, along with tankers because there are no hydrants in the area. The smoke plume could be seen from as far away as Kane County and southern Wisconsin.

No firefighters were injured, Huemann said.

The McHenry County Sheriff's Office and the fire department are investigating the cause of the fire, which witnesses said was caused by a charcoal grill. McHenry Fire Battalion Chief Mike Majercik said the investigation is ongoing, but that authorities do not at this point suspect the fire was suspicious. Majercik said investigators are looking into the grill, and reports of a controlled burn in the area.

"They did have a charcoal grill on a wood deck that they did use earlier in the day, but we are not calling it the cause," Majercik said.

Witnesses in the chaos of Wednesday evening credited 15-year-old Madison Wallraf for saving many of the horses. Wallraf, of Johnsburg, estimated she got at least 25 of them out – she and fellow rescuer Shannon Weitzman, 21, were both taken to Centegra Hospital-McHenry and treated for smoke inhalation.

Wallraf's stepfather, Gerry Karlen, was driving her there to ride just as the smoke began to rise, Wallraf said as she stood across the street from the ruins Thursday afternoon. Concerned for her horse, Red, she said she called 911, tossed her phone to her stepfather and ran into the stable. She rescued Red, then went back for two foals, and kept on going back.

A spooked horse kicked her in the shoulder and knocked her to the ground, and she promptly had to crawl her way out of the stable because of the thick smoke.

"It was fast. It was like there was no time at all," Wallraf said. "It ate through that barn like it was nothing."

Huemann said that the number of volunteers who braved the fire to save the horses had the unfortunate effect of allowing the fire to spread faster.

"As the doors were opened up, it brought in more oxygen that contributed to the spread of the fire, but the priority was the horses, and that's what you have to do to get the horses out," Huemann said.

Huemann approached Wallraf after learning what she did to thank her, and let her know the department would one day like to recognize her for her bravery.

"You did a nice job," he told her.

Wallraf's grandmother, Elaine Haberkamp, said she cried all the way to the stable Wednesday upon hearing about the fire, not knowing if Wallraf, and other people, and the horses were all right. She said Wallraf's bravery comes as no surprise to her.

"That's just her and her love of animals," Haberkamp said.

Among the many people who responded to care for the surviving horses was Donna Ewing, director of the Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society, based in Barrington Hills. The group transported several of the horses to area stables, but found that the horse community had already rallied to relocate most of the others.

Even with 18 horses dead, Ewing said she is amazed that many escaped.

"It's a miracle they didn't all die, given the intensity of the fire and the rapidity with which it took off," she said.

Ewing's charity is collecting and refurbishing old reins, saddles, bridles and other equipment to help horse owners who lost their gear in the fire. She said she felt devastated for people who lost their horses.

"You're losing a wonderful companion that just happens to have four legs instead of two. Particularly on a horse, you spend wonderful hours one on one. The camaraderie and the exhilaration you feel, and they respond to you, you can make them move with your hand," Ewing said.

"To lose that is horrible, and to lose that in such a horrible way ..."

Besides good Samaritans, firefighters also entered the building to try to evacuate horses, and also cut openings in the exterior walls in the hopes of helping others escape, Huemann said.

Animal Control and the McHenry County Conservation District were still searching the woods and neighboring Volo Bog for the missing horses Thursday. An earlier helicopter search by Air One Helicopter found some of them with a thermal camera, Huemann said.

People who spot the horses should not approach them, but call Animal Control at 815-459-6222, Quackenbush said. She said animal control has a team with volunteer horse trailer drivers ready to respond, and is "asking the public to be our eyes and ears," especially with the amount of ground a horse can cover.

Northwest Herald reporter Katie Anderson contributed to this story.

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