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Ohio city mourns men, horses killed in barn fire

Image: Lebanon Fire Department work the scene of a horse barn fire
Firefighters work the scene of a deadly horse barn fire in Lebanon, Ohio, on Saturday.Tony Jones / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stunned horse owners, trainers and stable hands visited the blackened site Sunday where a barn fire killed two workers and 43 horses at a harness-racing track in southwest Ohio.

Warren County fairgrounds officials quickly hired excavators to pile up twisted metal and charred wood debris and remove the horses' bodies late in the aftermath of the early Saturday blaze that quickly consumed Barn No. 16 at Lebanon Raceway.

Fire investigators have ruled out criminal intent, but indicated they haven't determined what caused the fire. Warren Fair Board member Chris Lutmer said officials wanted to quickly remove the horse remains to ease anxiety — he said for most owners and workers, the horses were like members of the family.

"We wanted to get them out as quickly as possible so people didn't have to look at them," Lutmer said. "It's just like your pet lying down there. You see them almost every day."

Veteran horse owners Harry and Nancy Curtner stood on a ridge in frigid air with whiffs of acrid smoke, looking down at where their young filly Rosie died.

"It still seems like it's not true," Nancy Curtner said of the brown yearling, which had never raced. "We have a lot of memories in that barn.

"She was a baby. She was learning. We had high hopes for her."

'We all know each other'
It's difficult to estimate the value of such young horses, though regular harness track winners can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Officials said at least six winners from Friday night's racing had been killed. The track canceled Saturday night's races.

"This is kind of a like a big family business," trainer Rex Watson said. "We all know each other."

He works with horses in the adjacent, football field-length barn lined inside with horse stalls and equipment. He said it appeared that no smoke from the fire came into the barn and the horses inside were unharmed.

"We were lucky," he said. "They're all fine."

Authorities haven't officially identified the two men who died, but owners and other workers said they were two veteran horse groomers, Ronnie Williams and James Edwards.

"They were just two great guys," said Jackie Winn, a groomer at the track for seven years. "They'd do anything in the world to help you. They will be greatly missed."

Authorities weren't sure whether they had spent the night at the barn, which workers aren't supposed to do.

The Lebanon track has seen four fires, including one two decades ago that killed 35 horses, dating to the late 1980s. A former race track in Henderson, Ky., had two fires that killed horses in 2008, one claiming 27 and another killing six.

Lebanon, a city of 20,000 people about 25 miles northeast of Cincinnati, is known for its quaint historic downtown and antique shops, as well as affinity for horses. The fire came just hours before an annual holiday horse parade through the city.