An hour after Danny Jenner had tucked a last nibble of hay in his charges' stalls Thursday night, he was back at the barn, staring at billows of ominous dark smoke.
Jenner, a five-year trainer at Happy Valley Farms in Rossville, charged into the barn, frantic to get world champion American Saddlebred stallion Merchant Prince out of the burning building. The only sounds were crackling flames.
As the smoke and heat intensified, Jenner had to turn away.
Near the front of the barn, he and three other farm employees found Merchant Prince's son, Merchant Heir. They pulled and tugged, but the horse froze. They found another horse. He wouldn't budge. The smoke got thicker.
They had to get out.
As they ran for the door, Merchant Heir followed at their heels -- the only one of 36 horses to survive the horrific fire that claimed the lives of generations of Saddlebred show horses.
For Happy Valley Farms owner Marion "Bit" Hutcheson, the loss is more personal than professional, according to people who have known her and worked for her.
"All barn fires are tragic, but what Bit lost is decades of her personal work, personally bred, privately raised horses," said Bob Funkhouser, who has known Hutcheson for 30 years. "Four stallions with national reputations, and mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers all at once. These are certain bloodlines Bit developed."
Hutcheson has nurtured Happy Valley Farms, founded by her late father, John Hutcheson, into one of the most highly regarded breeding operations for American Saddlebreds in the nation, said Funkhouser, editor of the weekly Saddle Horse Report.
The farm has been a nursery for more than 60 years for the breed known for high-spirited personalities in the arena and gentle, friendly spirits in their stalls.
Jenner said the loss cannot be calculated.
"For Bit and I, it's like losing 35 of your family members in 20 minutes. How do you describe that?" Jenner asked. "They are her children."
CAUSE UNDER INVESTIGATION
A family that lives on the farm first spotted the fire Thursday night.
Shelia Perez said she dialed 911 at about 8:45 p.m. Time seemed to slow down as she waited for the fire department. Black smoke curled skyward and flames lit up the sky and could be seen from as far away as six miles.
Walker County Fire Chief Randy Camp said firefighters were on the scene in nine minutes.
As the flames began to lap at a second barn, firefighters pulled two 1,100-foot hoses from their fire engines, hooked a line to the only fire hydrant on the property -- about 2,000 feet from the barn -- and pulled.
One hose hooked. The second had to be linked through a second engine and pulled to the top of the hill. Crews soaked the barns for about seven hours before the flames were completely smothered.
Federal, state and local fire inspectors examined the charred remains of the stables Friday.
Officials couldn't give an immediate cause for the fire, but they said foul play is not suspected. The investigation will continue.
Camp estimated a $4.3 million loss between the 35 show horses and two stables.
He said the barns had no sprinklers. Most older barns do not have them, and most are full of combustible material, including cured hay, straw, wood shavings and wooden beams and stalls.
Because of that, employees obsess over checking the barn for lights left on or anything else that could spark a flame, said trainer Donnie Pyburn, who works at Happy Valley. He said he and Jenner check the barn every night and Hutcheson stops by later to look at the horses one more time.
Barn fires are a horse owner's worst nightmare. The sights and sounds are sickening, never to be forgotten.
"This is the worst fear you have," he said.
Among the horses killed were four stallions, the backbone of Happy Valley Farms' breeding operation: sires Merchant Prince, RWC I'm The Prince, WC Harlem's Friendly Conversation and Magical Me. Experts said Merchant Prince had been a Top 10 breeding stallion since 1990.
Eight show horses, some being readied for upcoming competitions, also lost their lives.
Funkhouser said the Saddlebred community will rally around Hutcheson.
"She is known coast to coast. Only three other farms have been at it as long as Happy Valley," he said. "We have a really competitive business, but when things like this happen, the entire show-horse community rallies and becomes one family."
About a hundred mares, foals and yearlings are left on the farm, Jenner said.
By Friday morning the smoke had cleared. The firetrucks were gone and the air was calm.
Yearlings grazed in a field in front of the burned barn.
Cars slowed as they passed the barn. Some people stopped, pulled out binoculars or took a photo.
"Did they save any of them?" a woman called from her car, tears streaming down her face.
As workers peeled back the tin barn roof, they had the task of removing the horses' bodies. Jenner said the horses were going to be buried on the farm, under state supervision.
Each horse will have his or her own grave.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...