published Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Dozens reported Happy Valley Farms stable fire in North Georgia (with audio)

An excavator operates near a burned-out barn as horses graze in a field at Happy Valley Farms in Rossville. A fire broke out in the farm's main barn Thursday night, and farmhands were able to save only one of the 36 horses stabled in the barn before it was engulfed by flames.
An excavator operates near a burned-out barn as horses graze in a field at Happy Valley Farms in Rossville. A fire broke out in the farm's main barn Thursday night, and farmhands were able to save only one of the 36 horses stabled in the barn before it was engulfed by flames.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
Audio clip

Happy Valley Farm 911 call - 1 of 4

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Happy Valley Farm 911 call - 2 of 4

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Happy Valley Farm 911 call - 3 of 4

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Happy Valley Farm 911 call - 4 of 4

"Walker 911."

"Hi, they say that one of my barns is on fire on Happy Valley Road," Marion "Bit" Hutcheson said to a 911 dispatcher, her voice cracking. "Have you sent somebody?"

"They haven't gotten there, but they're on the way," the dispatcher responds.

But the flames sparked and burned so quickly at the two stables on Happy Valley Farms on June 20 that employees only had time to save one of the 36 American Saddlebred horses tucked away in their stalls for the night.

Hutcheson, a nationally known breeder and trainer of American Saddlebreds and owner of the farm founded by her late father, John Hutcheson, was one of 34 people to call 911 to report the flames and dark black smoke that were seen as far away as St. Elmo.

A week after the fire at the North Georgia farm, investigators still haven't been able to identify what started one of the worst fires in a structure holding animals in recent state history.

Walker County Fire Chief Randy Camp said investigators have called an electrical engineer to check whether a wiring malfunction sparked a flame in one of the barns built in 1968.

Investigators have ruled out a lightning strike, and state fire marshal employees said investigators haven't found evidence the blaze was intentionally set.

The investigation was held up from Saturday afternoon until Tuesday morning so the 35 horses that died in the fire could be buried on the property. Camp said employees use backhoes to dig the holes and large machinery to lift the bodies from inside the stalls.

  • photo
    A sympathy wreath labeled "Our hearts are with you" is propped against the Happy Valley Farms signpost as horses graze in a field near a burned-out barn Saturday in Rossville, Ga. A fire broke out in the farm's main barn Thursday night and 35 horses stabled there died.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

Investigators have estimated a $4.3 million loss between the show horses and the two stables.

Trainers compare the grief to the loss of family members.

Many of those who called 911 last week were upset or worried about the blazing stables.

"Happy Valley farm, the Hutcheson house, is on fire. It's burning bad," one caller says, his voice panicked. "It looks like the barn is gone. It is gone, it's like 50-foot flames, on my word."

Another caller said the fire seemed to blow up in an instant.

"Poof, and there it was," a man told a friend while on the phone with 911.

A later caller sounds concerned that the fire department hadn't arrived.

"It's been going on for a while and nobody's showed up," a woman told a dispatcher. "Stuff is blowing up."

Records show it took the first fire engines nine minutes to arrive. Camp said firefighters were able to immediately start hosing the stables with the reserve water stored in the engine.

When the first engines arrived they did push a second alarm for back-up once they saw the height of the flames, Camp said. Fire departments from the state line to Rock Springs responded -- a total of seven fire stations sent engines. By 11 p.m., firefighters said the first stable was a total loss. At 4:30 a.m., the last of the fire engines left.

The flammable, combustible materials inside the stables charred the wooden structure, making it difficult for investigators to pinpoint the fire's origin.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@times freepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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