Veterinarian Describes Missouri Trailer Accident Response

A veterinarian who responded to the deadly trailer accident on Sept. 27 has described his experience with The Horse and how it has impacted him.

A truck carrying 42 horses bound for slaughter overturned early that morning on Interstate 44 in Franklin County, Mo. Seventeen horses died immediately or were euthanatized due to extensive injuries. The remaining 24 horses and a hinny are in the care of area veterinarians and the Humane Society of Missouri (HSMO), which directed the rescue effort at the scene. The HSMO is currently trying to obtain custody of the animals from the horse owner's insurance company.

The shipment originated in Oklahoma and was headed for the Cavel International processing plant in DeKalb, Ill. Sgt. Al Nothum of the Franklin County Sheriff's Department public information office explained the driver, Richard Facinelli, was "working for the horses' owner," he said. "His wife basically fell asleep in the passenger seat in his lap, and when she woke up, she jerked his arm and it caused (the crash). It was kind of a freak accident, and unfortunately, the horses paid the price."

At 3:15 a.m., Longmeadow Rescue Ranch Director Earlene Cole received a call from the Franklin County Sheriff's office about the overturned trailer. Cole, who served as incident commander, assembled a team of veterinarians and rescue personnel who arrived on the scene shortly after 4:00 a.m.

After rescue and triage (described below by Robson), the animals have trickled back to Longmeadow Rescue Ranch, where they are being cared for by volunteers. Common injuries include cuts, lacerations, contusions, eye injuries, and pressure sores from supporting the weight of other animals on top of them as they waited to be rescued. Some horses have neurologic deficits from the pressure placed on their spinal cords.

Facinelli was taken into custody on outstanding warrants (he had unpaid traffic tickets in other states), and Cavel reported in a statement that he allegedly had been in violation of USDA transportation regulations. Facinelli posted a $260 bond and was set free. It is not clear what USDA transportation regulations Facinelli had violated. Double-decker trailers--also called "possum-belly" trailers--are to be phased out and illegal for transport of horses to slaughter by Dec. 7.

Here is the account of the accident response from Stuart Robson, DVM, of Fox Creek Veterinary Clinic:

"The whole scene was horrific," said Robson, who was the first veterinarian to arrive. "It was dark, first of all, and the trailer was on its side in the middle of I-44. The first thing I did was climb up on top of the trailer, and I borrowed a flashlight and I looked down in each of the compartments of the double-decker semi-trailer. Horses were piled on top of each other, there was blood everywhere, and the horses were just panicking.

"Some of the horses were standing, most of them were down, and a lot of them were injured very badly," he continued. "To understand these trailers, they're made for cattle, the (ceilings) are very low, and they're very wide, and you can imagine with the trailer on its side, the room becomes very tall and very narrow, so all the horses were thrown on top of each other--it was horrendous.

"Once we figured out how many horses were in each compartment, we made a plan to cut into the front compartment, and we set up some cattle pens on the highway," said Robson. "They (highway patrol) shut down the westbound I-44...we had several trailers there that had responded to the scene to help transport them to a triage site. With the help of the fire department, we started to cut a large hole into the first compartment. Once we did that, we laid the roof down, laid mats on top of that, and walked them out.

"We just had to work our way back, compartment by compartment, with the Jaws of Life just cutting through" the metal gates that they were unable to open, he described. Those animals that were able to walk out did so fairly calmly as most were in shock. He said many of the horses that were down were easily slid out on trailer mats and rescue slides. "These horses were basically covered in sweat, urine, and blood. It was pretty easy to slide them out."

Robson said the condition of each group of animals the team reached was worse than the prior compartment's animals, because of the time that had passed.

"There would maybe be one or two standing, and five or six down," he said. "We'd hook straps to the horses, drag them out, put an IV catheter in them and give them emergency treatment and try to stabilize them. I had to put down at least six or eight in the trailer and also outside the trailer, because their injuries were so severe."

With the trailer on it's side, horses were getting their legs caught in the trailer's ventilation holes. Robson had to amputate some of the dead horses' limbs so that their bodies could be removed and make room for the team to reach the live animals. At one point, Robson was climbing over a "tangle of horses" to get to two very agitated and painful animals that required euthanasia, and he fell, his own foot slipping between the animals, and lost a shoe through a hole. A firefighter had to help him out of the pile.

Under one of the piles on which a survivor stood, there was a live horse. "I don't know how he survived, he was completely covered and he didn't have hardly any lacerations," said Robson, who said the only sign this horse was alive was his blinking eye peering out from under the bodies. "We had to drag him out of the trailer--I didn't think he was going to make it. We gave him a couple of emergency shots, anti-inflammatories, and steroids. I asked someone to get a catheter in him and see how he's going to do. I came out of the trailer about 45 minutes later and he was up and standing."

"Willy," as the horse was dubbed for his will to survive, sloughed some skin due to pressure necrosis from the weight of the other horses, and he has some residual neurological problems from the pressure on his spine. "He is one incredible horse to make it through that," said Robson.

As the veterinarians and caretakers stabilized the horses at the scene, they loaded them in waiting trailers to the nearby St. Clair Saddle Club. There, in an outdoor arena, four veterinary clinics had stations set up where they triaged the animals.

"The triage site was a sight within itself," said Robson. "It was like a big MASH (mobile army surgical hospital) unit--an outdoor arena that we turned into a veterinary hospital. All the vets pulled their trucks in and were stationed, horses were on fluids all over the place, and there was a wild stallion running around, but considering the situation, everything was rather organized." About six veterinarians were involved by the time the horses reached the triage site, where each horse was spray-painted with a number to designate what hospital staff had treated it. Six horses went to Fox Creek, and all survived, although one mare aborted.

Robson said many of the survivors were young and in good flesh. "They're not, as far as conformation, the prettiest horses you'll ever see, but a lot of them are not horses that you would think that would go to slaughter," he said. "One of the hardest ones for me to put to sleep was the very last horse that was on the trailer, a down horse....she had foundered so badly that her feet were deformed. It was just really disheartening that someone would send a horse like that to slaughter.

He said many of the horses were easy to handle, although a few were difficult to catch. "None of us were ever kicked or and large they were okay, a lot of it was trauma from the accident," he said.

Robson wasn't sure how to describe how the accident has impacted him. "They don't prepare us in vet school for anything like this," he said. "I've been a vet for 10 years and I don't ever get too excited about any emergency I see, because I've seen most things, and most things you can quickly solve. But having 42 animals trapped in a trailer like this was your worst nightmare come true.

"It's changed me a lot, I don't know exactly how to explain it, but we're take care of God's creatures, and this is just not acceptable," he continued. "We're not being good stewards for these helpless creatures that we're taking responsibility for. I think we need to have a debate on how this can be better. At the very least, there has to be...a strategy on how to deal with unwanted horses in a better way.

"Honestly, I had never thought of this issue too much before," he added. "But this has been put in my changes you. You're so much more compassionate and situations like this mobilize the community to take stock of how well we care for our animals."

For information on how to assist the HSMO in caring for the survivors, click here.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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