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Wreck was Transformational

by Paula Drake

I became active in the horse welfare movement as a result of a horrific wreck in southern Indiana where a double decker cattle truck packed with approximately 50 horses tipped over on a rural road. I talked with many people over the course of many months gathering factual and anecdotal details about the wreck. I present them here. The names of those with whom I spoke and the names of those involved in the wreck and the aftermath are not specifically identified because it is not the reason for this account.

Rather this account is to illustrate two things: the pitiful weakness in both federal and state laws regarding the transport of livestock and the cruel fate in store for many horses sold to horse traders or sold a small auctions where horse traders routinely frequent.

Those with whom I spoke include responders to the wreck, the news media who covered the story, one of those who had financial interest in the horses, the breed club who held the auction where some of the horses were purchased, the attending vet, KY Ag reps, DOT employees, commercial insurance reps, State Police, and an assortment of witnesses.

On September 15, 2004, two double decker cattle trucks packed with more than 100 horses, traveled southeast on I-74 in southern Indiana.

The day was a blue sky day. The roads were perfectly dry. There was no wind.

I-74 connects with I-275 at the southern end. I-275 is a circle freeway connecting southern Indiana with the Greater Cincinnati area and with Northern Kentucky. It is the recommended route for trucks.

These two double deckers were on the last leg of a long journey which started in Minnesota and which would end in rural Fleming County Kentucky, a county accessed by a spur off by the Kentucky portion of I-275.

However, the two rigs did not travel the recommended route of I-74 to I-275. Instead, though there are HUGE yellow signs saying Truckers do not use..., the drivers turned on to Indiana St. Route 1, a winding, hilly, narrow two lane road which slices through the Indiana hills for approximately 12 miles. At the bottom of the long descent, Rt. 1 intersects I-275 at the Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana state lines.

Using the cut-through is not faster. Certainly it is NOT more safe. Route 1 is heavily traveled by school buses and local residential traffic. Using the cut-through is not appreciably fewer miles. Using the cut-through is definitely not easier driving. But by using the cut-through rigs avoid the DOT weigh station at the Ohio/Indiana border.

Two truckers in tandem witnessed the double deckers shortly before horse-filled loads exited at Route 1. They observed the second trailer was rocking, and as they passed them, they could hear what sounded like animals screaming and kicking. They went on down 74 to 275 and stopped at a local truck stop to eat and while there saw the breaking news story. They were not surprised. They were aghast that the trucks had taken Route 1.

The accident happened at the bottom of the long winding hill, just past a busy school bus stop, where a group of small children had just departed the bus. The second truck pitched to the right on the edge of an embankment in front of, ironically, a large horse farm. The force of all those horses on the top level hitting the side and the top, forced the trailer to break open. The horses on the top spilled out down the embankment. The horses on the bottom were trapped.

Residents came running. They quickly waved the mobile horses down a lane and closed it off with a vehicle so the horses would not go back up to the highway.

Local emergency crews arrived. A young just starting to practice vet was on call in the area since most were away at a veterinary conference. Ironically, the local DOT folks were away as well, at training. There was only an office person to respond to the scene. Needless to say, all those responders had never seen anything quite like this.

The vet did everything he could to stabilize the loose horses, euthanize immediately those dying, and then he set upon the dangerous course of entering the bottom to see if he could save any below. By that time, however, they had frantically fought the chaos, injuring themselves all the more. There was only one survivor from below - a donkey.

There had been three men in the cab of the truck. None were seriously injured. All refused medical assistance. One man had a valid license to drive the rig, the second had no license, and the third was under suspension for wrecking a similar double decker less than six months earlier, not far from this location. That wreck had involved a large load of cattle. I learned later, if medical assistance had been requested that would have been reported to the insurance company and would have pushed the insured into a higher risk classification for insurance purposes.

The man without the license claimed ownership of the horses and showed the deputy sheriff's a large manilla envelope of papers. The deputy admitted later he had no idea what the papers were, but he took the man's word for it. His goals were to clean up the wreck as fast as possible and to get the identities established of the driver and occupants. Incredibly no citations were issued. His comment: gee people wreck all the time. . . he didn't hurt anybody and that's how we do it around here. To this day I am flabbergasted at the ineptness of the local law enforcement who responded to this wreck. Seems to me at least a failure to control vehicle would have been in order!

Though fuel was spilled, no required hazmat unit was called. There was no DOT officer at the scene.

And what happened to the first truck you ask? Those in the wrecked truck radioed them to simply go on and not stop.

The local residents who cared for the survivors were overwhelmed with the horror in front of them. Despite what was obviously mortal injuries, including one horse with entrails exposed, the survivors wanted to eat the lush pasture grass. Water was hauled in and the horses eagerly drank. The person I spoke with who was a nearby horse owner said the horses were obviously dehydrated and had not been fed for some time. Her comment was proved true when I later tracked the journey of these horses all the way back to a series of auctions in Minnesota days earlier.

The horse farm owners offered an enclosed area and barn for the survivors so they could be treated and rested before resuming their journey. The man claiming ownership refused, stating a relative was on his way with another trailer to load up the survivors immediately. Any horse unable to continue was euthanized. Several of those just needed a little time to heal leg wounds. Many were loaded with ugly serious gaping wounds. Their journey continued.

There was much talk later about the final destination of these unlucky horses. It was discovered that the man who claimed ownership was a horse trader who sold a large volume of horses to slaughter. As a middleman he buys from auctions and from individuals selling at a low price, reselling a few to clients and persons looking for a family horse, but selling the vast majority to kill buyers who then haul them to slaughter.

Though the ultimate outcome of the survivors is unknown, rumors circulated for months that they rehabbed on the trader's farm. However, the trader refused to confirm that when the news media visited his farm. Other rumors abounded that horses with recent wounds showed up at nearby low-end horse auctions, all bought by slaughter buyers.

In the end we only know the fate of one of the survivors. Wise cowpony that he was, he followed one of the local persons administering to the injured. Everywhere she went, he went. It was in her yard the fuel spilled. She demanded compensation. The man claiming ownership refused. Then he tried to talk her into a young foal whose mom had been mortally injured. She said she was not equipped to handle an orphan foal. Others offered to take the baby, he refused all offers, even those trying to buy the baby. In the end, he agreed TO SELL her the gelding who had followed her around. She had to pay $1500 for him!

For a long time, there was a cross with two horseshoes marking the spot of that wreck. Each winter it would be plowed under. Each spring it would reappear. Now it is gone. However, just behind it, in lush pasture fields grazes one very lucky gelding.

Where did the horses come from? It was obvious from the news footage and photographs that the horses on the double decker were quality horses. They were in good weight, many had leather halters with nameplates, and some had braided manes, tails and polished hooves, a certain sign those had come from some kind of a sponsored auction, like a breed auction.

Many were paint horses and many were quarter horses.

I started making some calls and confirmed that many of the horses had gone through auctions in Minnesota the weekend prior to the wreck. I told with several of the officers of the sponsoring club, naively thinking the sellers would want to know about their horses.

The door was shut in my face with the calloused lecture of the money in sellers' pockets is more than they had before the auction. I found it hard to believe none of the sellers cared about the fate of their horses whose manes they braided and whose hooves they polished.

I wondered how the well cared for horses, perhaps pet horses, felt when they were whipped into smelly dank cattle double deckers instead of roomy horse trailers, and then denied breaks, water, or food for at least 48 hours.

Others on board, like the cowpony, had come from the West, being hauled by double deckers out of Montana herd dispersals and auctions to holding lots in Minnesota. Some went through the auctions and were bought by the middle man; others were bought in bulk by the middle man out of the holding lots. Many came with fancy quarter horse pedigrees. A few mares were promised to Kentucky mule breeders. There was a paint stallion promised to a breeding farm. There were cowponies promised to regular clients. There was a fancy pair of draft paints, a few thoroughbred broodmares bred to paints. Sadly I venture to say, few of the 101 every made it to loving homes. Of those who survived the wreck, most went to slaugher, many after being hauled from the West, to Minnesota, to Kentucky, and then to slaughter.

How senseless.

There was a mare that haunted me. She was a big beautiful brown mare with a leather halter on. She kept trying to get up. She could only get to a sitting position. I asked the cowpony's new owner about her. She remembered her well. She told me she might very well have survived if she could have been treated further, but since she could not get into the trailer, she was euthanized. I guess euthanasia there was better than slaughter later.

Again, how senseless.

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