A lifetime of memories went up in flames when the Moffitts' barn burned to the ground, killing four horses and gravely injuring another.
The horses belonged to Judy Hilburn, who lives on the property in Shallotte, N.C., with her mother, Elva Moffitt.
They were awakened early Sunday morning by a neighbor who saw the fire, Hilburn said. By the time they went outside, the fire department was there.
A newspaper carrier had made the 911 call, she said.
"There's nothing I really know about where the fire started or how it started," Hilburn said. "The barn was engulfed when I went out."
The surviving mare, Joker B., was stabilized enough to be transported to Shambley Equine Hospital in Charleston, where she's still recuperating.
"She's in pretty bad shape," Hilburn said. "I don't know how long she'll be there."
Her previous owner has established a fund to help cover the cost of the mare's medical expenses.
The family thinks Joker B. was with foal.
The cause of the fire has not been determined, and it is not clear whether it was intentional, said Capt. Gene Caison of the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office. The investigation continues.
Damage is estimated at $250,000, according to the incident report.
But the emotional loss weighs far heavier on the hearts of those who hold fond memories of the horses.
Moffitt said she has owned the land for more than 50 years, and during that time many children came to the barn for horseback-riding lessons with Hilburn.
Even though she hasn't taught for years, Hilburn said she has received numerous phone calls from former students expressing their condolences.
"Those horses and Judy have touched so many people's lives in Brunswick County," said Teresa Gore, whose daughter took lessons there. "It just breaks my heart."
The veterinarian said the four horses who died weren't burnt to death but were killed by asphyxiation. They were buried in the pasture behind the house on Cotton Patch Road. Where Hilburn used to watch her horses run, she now sees an empty field.
"I just hate to see a lifetime just gone," said Sharon Wilson, Hilburn's sister who also grew up riding horses there. "Every morning they get up and look out the window, and it's just another slap in the face."
Physical limitations might prevent Hilburn from rebuilding; she broke her back several years ago. She will make a decision after an upcoming surgery, she said.
"I've had these horses forever; they were part of my life, they were family," Hilburn said.
Even though it's difficult to look at the blackened barn frame and she still gets teary-eyed sometimes when she talks about the fire, Hilburn tries to remain optimistic.
"They were all great horses," she said. "My girls are riding the pastures in heaven."
Donations to Joker B.'s Medical Fund, which has been set up at Wachovia Bank, can be mailed to:
Distributed by the Associated Press