On Saturday, January 19, near Caney, OK, Donna Willis awoke to nightmare sounds of crackling flames and frantic horses. By the time she and her sons reached their barn, the building was ablaze. The fire claimed the lives of 43 horses.

Donna’s husband, Eddie, a well-known Quarter race trainer, arrived home from a sale just 20 minutes after the fire had ripped through the barn. “It’s the worst nightmare,” he told Channel 12 News. “I’ve heard of them before, but I’ve never seen one. And I hope I never see one again.”

Willis, who started Willis Racing Stable nearly 30 years ago and now runs it with the assistance of his sons Kevin, Kasey and Eddie Lee, is a leading Quarter Horse trainer at Remington Park in Oklahoma City, northwest of Caney. He also has horses in training at tracks in New Mexico, Texas and Kansas.

Four horses were rescued from the fire, but Willis is uncertain if they will survive. The 43 horses that died were buried on Willis’ property. “A lot of people may not feel about horses like I do, but it’s part of the family,” he said. The fire is believed to have been caused by a heater in the barn office.

This past November, 30 horses were destroyed in a fire near Shelbyville, TN, and 26 succumbed during a stable fire in Marcy, NY. In January 1986, 45 Thoroughbreds died in a fire at Belmont Park – 36 from the barn of the late Eclipse-winning trainer Johnny Campo.