Counting their blessings

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Their blessings include five children, five horses, 14 chickens, two goats and one cat — all of whom were in the barn when a bolt of lightning struck a circuit box that sent sparks into bales of hay, touching off a massive fire that would engulf the building.

No lives — human or otherwise — were lost.

Although it took the Williamstown Fire Department less than 5 minutes to reach the scene after a 5:31 p.m. call to 9-1-1, the barn burned to the ground.

As severe weather swept in Thursday evening, five young people — students and counselors at the horse farm's riding academy — took cover inside the barn.

When the lightning bolt struck, it terrified the kids and horses inside.

"We were sitting in a hayloft talking when we heard a big boom and saw sparks," said James Settlers, 12, of Stamford, Vt. "We jumped out of the hayloft and ran out the barn to the house."

The bolt of electricity surged through the circuits in the barn. Two young people said they saw sparks shoot out of the circuit box and the fire start. Four of them ran out of the barn, and one grabbed a cat on his way out.

"I was sitting on top of the hay bales, and I heard two of the other kids screaming that there was a fire," said Greg Clancy, 12, of Holliston. "Then I looked up and saw sparks coming out of the lights. So I grabbed the cat, kicked open the gate and ran out of the barn."

The other, a trainer at the academy, pulled a 34-year-old stallion out of the barn with her.

"I was in the barn with a bunch of the other kids, when two of the kids came running down the hall yelling, 'Fire! Fire!' " said Becca Hopkins, 17, a senior at Drury High School. "So I sent them to the house and grabbed the stallion, a 34-year-old, slammed a halter on him and led him out."

Hopkins spoke with pride about how the kids reacted as they were trained to do in the event of a barn fire and how the horses, once out of the horror of the burning barn, went straight to their paddock.

"The kids were amazing, and the horses were so good," Hopkins said. "It's what we like to call the perfect barn fire."

According to Carol DeMayo, she and her husband were in the house when the lightning struck. They ran out to the barn, where they came upon the young people fleeing toward the house. The DeMayos and a friend, Alix Cabral, ran through the smoke, amid the sound of screaming horses, and into the burning barn.

"While trying to find the horses through the smoke," DeMayo said, "bales of burning hay were falling on us — I thought my hair was going to catch on fire."

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One horse was so terrified, she wouldn't leave the barn until DeMayo covered her eyes. Then the horse acquiesced and was led to the door. Another pony was huddled against the back of her stall, making her hard to find.

"You couldn't hear from all the screaming," DeMayo said. "It was crazy. It was a raging inferno. It went so fast — it was mind-boggling."

"The whole hayloft was on fire above us," Cabral noted.

They located the pony and led her to the door as well, but there was a fiber net barrier blocking their way and they were having trouble opening the clasps. Fortunately, the horses were strong enough and scared enough to burst through the barrier and into the open air.

Richard DeMayo was able to locate the last two horses and lead them out.

They quickly herded the chickens to safety, then went behind the barn to drag the two terrified goats — "kicking and screaming," Carol DeMayo noted — out of their pen, which was so close to the blaze that their lives were in danger.

Once the chaos subsided and they were sure everyone was safe, the DeMayos and their friends started to realize that there were still some heavy property losses — in addition to the barn.

Among the losses are a $75,000 horse trailer, two all-terrain vehicles, an antique horse-drawn cart, an antique horse-drawn open sleigh, 15 to 20 saddles, and at least eight tack trunks containing roughly $2,000 worth of riding helmets, boots, bridles, spurs, chaps and mementos such as ribbons and photographs.

But worse, a minimum of $20,000 worth of hay, the winter supply of food for the horses, was lost.

"I just made our first payment on that hay yesterday," Carol DeMayo said.

According to Robert Briggs, Williamstown's assistant fire chief, 26 firefighters from Williamstown, Pownal, Vt., and the Pownal (Vt.) Valley fire departments battled the fire.

Given the heavy fire, they determined the best they could do was to beat the flames down as quickly as possible and douse water on the adjacent barn to keep it from catching.

He said the fire was under control by 6:10 p.m.

"The most frightening thing was the children," DeMayo said yesterday, standing in the ruins of the barn, on the brink of tears. "I'm telling you, we are blessed."

To reach Scott Stafford: sstafford@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 664-4995.


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