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ELM CITY — Sonja Duke has lived her worst nightmare.
The owner of Illustrious Morgan Manor awoke at 4 a.m. Tuesday when she heard a bang in the barn near her home on Town Creek Road southeast of Elm City.
“Sometimes you will hear that, horses kicking a stall or something. A couple of seconds later I heard another one,” Duke said. “So I went and looked out the window to double-check and the whole roof was on fire. I ran out screaming ‘911’ and letting horses out as fast as I could.”
Duke opened horse stalls, pushing horses out and closing doors so they wouldn’t run back in.
“It’s our biggest nightmare. You always kind of prepare for it. You never can,” Duke said Wednesday. “This is the first fire I have ever had and I want it to be the last because it’s just sickening, absolutely sickening.”
Duke’s husband Lee Gordon was away on business and her parents had yet to return from Pennsylvania after fleeing Hurricane Florence.
Duke, all alone, managed to save nine of the 10 horses in the barn.
The tenth, LouE, was one of the first Duke tried to save in the stall closest to her house.
“When I came up, his neck and shoulders were on fire and I couldn’t get him to come out, so I went to the others,” Duke said.
Somehow, LouE got out and headed away with some of the other horses headed down the road from the blazing barn.
Duke later leaned that LouE had died in a crash with one of the first responders’ personal vehicles.
“As much as I dearly love him, I think it was to his better because he was severely burned at that point, so I don’t think he would have made it anyway and certainly didn’t want him to suffer,” Duke said.
A second horse, Tia, was also burned by the flames.
“She was pretty well singed on her back,” Duke said. Duke hopes Tia will be able to recover.
“It is a matter of time because a lot of times with burns, you don’t see the full effect of them until several days later,” Duke said. “It’s one of those time-will-tell kind of things.”
Duke, who has been in the horse business for 45 years, came to Wilson County in 1999 from Pennsylvania.
She and her husband added on to existing tobacco structures including an old packhouse to make a stable. They created a tack room used for lessons and a school.
“It’s kind of been a build in progress,” Duke said. “We just kept adding onto it. We started building a little bit at a time.”
Duke and Gordon have a combination of horses, mostly Morgans, Arabians and saddlebreds, along with a couple of ponies.
The structure destroyed in the fire is about 60 by 75 feet in dimension.
“This particular building was important for so many reasons. It housed everything we had and needed,” Duke said. We used to have a lot of things before they burned up.”
On Wednesday, is was a matter of mopping up the debris.
“We’re slowly digging bits out of the rubble,” Duke said. “It’s a mess. It’s smelly. It’s dirty. It’s black and it’s crunched.”
Friends put on gloves and sifted through twisted tin roofing retrieving buckets, tack, chains, horseshoes, tools, stirrups, bridles, saddle racks, files, clippers, hinges, sinks and whatever might have value.
“Sonja has been a longtime friend of mine and I was just devastated when I heard about the horses and the barn,” said Barbara Ayers of Pinetops. “I just had to come over here and help. It’s what our community does. We pitch in and help.”
On Tuesday, Ayers helped Duke with insurance paperwork.
“Luckily, most of her horses made it,” Ayers said. “This fire could have been so much worse.”
Debra Batchelor of Lucama came over Wednesday to help separate things out of the rubble.
“I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was,” Batchelor said. “I heard about it, but once I got here it just broke my heart. I couldn’t believe it. I was glad she was able to get them out of the stalls. When I heard about it, I knew I had to come help her.”
Duke said she’s witnessed an amazing outpouring of help and support.
“There were hundreds of people here, people I don’t even know who they were that I can’t even thank,” Duke said. It’s amazing how a small town can come so together.”
Cavvietta Quarter Horse and Cattle Co., a neighboring business along Town Creek Road, offered to house the horses who needed stalls during the recovery effort.
“In the true spirit of neighbor and horse community, we rounded up everybody when daylight came finally,” Duke said. “Everybody took a horse and they walked them over there.”
Duke said the firefighters “came and they did their job willingly and to the best of their ability.”
That included members of the Bakertown Volunteer Fire Department, Toisnot Rural Fire Department, East Nash Fire Department, Macclesfield Volunteer Fire Department and West Edgecombe Volunteer Fire Department.
Bakertown Fire Chief Kevin Gardner said the fire’s cause is classified as accidental.
“I believe it’s electrical in nature,” Gardner said.
Gardner said the horse LouE ran in front of a car responding to the fire and was struck and killed.
“I hate to see the loss of the horse, but it is fortunate she wasn’t hurt trying to get them out of the barn,” Gardner said. “The man who struck him wasn’t hurt as well. She’s had that horse for a long, long time. When it’s that long, they are like a young ‘un to you.”
Gardner said it’s remarkable Macclesfield firefighters were able to respond considering their station burned to the ground Sunday, resulting in the loss of several trucks.
“They lost their station Monday and they still responded,” Gardner said. “That is a story in itself.”
“It’s mind-boggling the amount of people that come out to help, people who have brought food, people who have brought checks, donations, grain, hay, whatever we need,” Duke said. “People have offered to take the horses and move them for us. There were so many first responders and people her that I can never thank ‘cause I never got a chance to. A lot of them are my neighbors. They dealt with burying LouE and taking care of that. There aren’t words that can fully express our deep gratitude and thanks. It just doesn’t seem like enough.”
The needs are for “just basically everything.” To reach Duke, call 252-245-1340.