Thursday, December 31, 2009

Saved the Best for Last: Paul Williams and Pearl and the Rest of the Story

by Fran Jurga | 31 December 2009 | Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog at

This is the story that stopped me in my tracks and I wonder what it will mean to you. Please watch these videos but understand that they are only the beginning of this very special end-of-the-year story.

The television crews showed up when the deed was done, and the film footage showed only the wreckage of a burned-out horse barn. You heard only the testimony of onlookers. Yet something about this little story from a small town outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania piqued my curiosity. There had to be more to it.

And there is. The fireman who rushed into the burning barn at Greenmoor Commons Equestrian Center in Cecil Township, Pennsylvania was not just a local volunteer fireman. He was a farrier. And he was rushing in to save a horse he knew very well.

Paul Williams knew exactly where Pearl's stall was, and though he said that she didn't seem to recognize him, we can only wonder about that. Others had tried to get her out but failed. Water from the fire hoses was filling her stall. She was standing in a foot of water.

"It was her blanket that saved this mare's life," Paul told me. "She was completely soaked. The blanket was saturated." That saturated blanket and the deep pool in the stall meant that the sparks and embers falling from above were doused as they entered the stall. Pearl was safe, for the most part, though. "And the wind direction was in her favor, too, " Paul recalled. "But it was that thick blanket that saved her."

The story doesn't stop there. "I was at the station when the call came in, and I heard a horse was trapped," Paul told me. Paul has been through special large animal rescue training and he is dedicated to educating horse owners and firemen about fire safety and horse rescue, along with a fellow firefighter who is a horse owner, Ed Childers.

And Paul does it all as a volunteer fireman, in addition to his farrier work, and the training of his horses. His fire department has only expertise, not equipment; they use an old bedliner out of a pickup truck as a glide for an injured horse. They have no slings or straps or pulleys. They rely on just their common sense, and (most of all), their horse sense.

Just ten days before Pearl's heroic rescue, Paul had been personally touched by fire. He trains Standardbreds, and had been looking into buying back one of his former trainees, a mare named Dancing Cassidy. She was stabled in southern Ohio at Lebanon Raceway.

On the morning of December 5th, two men and 43 horses died in a barn fire at Lebanon Raceway. One of those who died was Paul's mare, Dancing Cassidy. "She won the night before," Paul said, still proud of her. "I wanted to get her out of there and bring her home but I never got the chance."

You may have noticed in the video that Paul has an accent. "People ask me if I'm from Boston," he laughed. He moved to the USA 15 years ago from Brecon in South Wales, but the musical Welsh accent has stuck.

Paul rode National Hunt races back home in the winter; when he came to America, he set up his farrier business and started training Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds; he lives three miles from The Meadows racetrack. He estimates there are close to 3500 active riding and race horses in his county, and that he's picked a good place to shoe and live the life that suits him.

The horse rescue work is unfunded but Paul said that the day after the fire, an anonymous check for $500 arrived at the firehouse, and he was delighted. If you'd like to help Paul help more horses, I'd recommend that you learn what you can about fire prevention and emergency care of horses. And if you have a few dollars left at the end of year (or anytime), I know a donation would be put to good use if it was sent to the North Strabane Fire Department Large Animal Rescue Unit, 2550 Washington Rd., Canonsburg, PA 15317-5224 USA. I'm sure Paul would also travel to give talks on rescue and safety.

The fundraising t-shirt for the North Strabane Large Animal Rescue team.

When I asked Paul about being a farrier and rescuing horses and how the two jobs fit together, he quickly said, "Well, who better than us?"

And that's, as they say, the rest of this great story.

If you live near Pittsburgh and would like to learn more about large animal rescue and fire safety, Paul and Ed will give their next seminar on January 9th. There's lots more info at the North Strabane Volunteer Fire Department web site.

I'd like to thank Jim Durkin and everyone at WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh for making a special effort to release the video of Paul and Pearl, and uploading it so we could show it on this post. It is not that station's policy to allow their news footage to be used by outside web sites, and I know they made a special exception in this case for this special story, knowing that Hoof Blog readers would like to see the footage. Thanks too to CNN, who have had quite a few horse-related video clips open for use on the blog lately.

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