Horse trainer injured in Logan County barn fire speaks to Farm and Dairy

Brant Performance Horses barn was destroyed by a fire on June 8. More than 40 horses died in the blaze. (Susan Shea photo)

BELLE CENTER, Ohio — Eric Priest knows how horses react when they’re frightened. 

They flee if they can find a way, but horses won’t move in the case of a fire if smoke and flames obscure their vision of a safe exit. They simply stubbornly stay in the stall where they deemed they were always safe. 

Just after noon on June 8, flames broke out in a barn that housed two performance reining horse businesses on State Route 638 in Logan County. Brant Performance Horses and Priest Performance Horses housed their own and client’s horses in the 60,000-square-foot facility.

The fire moved so quickly that it was fully involved by the time firefighters arrived, and it was deemed unsafe for anyone to enter.

During the first few moments of the fire, however, Priest, the owner of one of the businesses, tried in vain to persuade the horses within to get out into safety. He knew the odds were against him, but the instinct to preserve the majestic animals, the passion of his life, urged him forward.

“I tried to save them,” he said, from his hospital bed three days after the fire. “But they wouldn’t move. They wouldn’t go out.”

He grimaces with pain and discomfort as he adjusts himself in the bed. Priest was caught up in the explosion when the fire reached a flash point, meaning that the ceiling hot air temperature caused everything inside to ignite, with a great deal of force and power. The horses remained, and Priest sustained second-degree burns to his hands, arms, back and head.

Priest’s voice becomes quieter as he remembers the scene in the barn. “The smoke was so black, and I couldn’t see anymore. I didn’t know how to get out.” 

He thinks he may have gotten out of the barn purely by the grace of God. He remembers suddenly being outside and ripping off his shirt and cowboy hat, which were covered in flames, and dousing himself with water.

At least 44 horses died in the fire.

Firefighters from Richland Township arrived to do what they could, and mutual aid was also received from Bellefontaine, De Graff, West Liberty, Rust Creek and Ridgeway. Firefighters were on the scene until 11:30 pm June 8.

Priest was first transported to the Mary Rutan Hospital in Belle Center, but his injuries were deemed serious enough that he was taken by helicopter to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. 

Surrounded in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit by his parents, Laura and Bill Priest, as well as his wife, Summer, there is an obvious network of family support that is operating on a full-time basis. 

“We’ve been through something hard like this before with Eric,” Laura Priest said. “He was a preemie so he had to fight even as an infant.”

“He is a fighter,” she said, with resolve. 

With bandages covering his injured areas, and gels and creams making his face shiny with protective medicine, Priest is expected to be in the hospital for about a month. His first skin graft surgery took place June 12, with the potential for more to come as he recovers.

Eric Priest is surrounded by family as he recovers in the hospital from burns suffered as he tried to free horses from a barn fire. Pictures are his parents, Bill and Laura Priest, and his wife, Summer. (Susan Shea photo)

Sinking in

The first 48 hours were spent in shock for most of those closest to the horses. Brandon Brant, the owner of Brant Performance Horses, was without words to describe what he was feeling. His wife, Cathy, had been particularly impacted. She had a few brood mares in the barn, and the foals they had recently produced were special to her. All of them died in the fire.

Julia Roshelli, who has worked at Brant for the past five years as an assistant trainer, said that the performance horses all had special personalities and they were like family. 

“The speed of the fire was terrible,” she said. “Very, very quick.” 

But she quickly composes herself, saying that she knew that all of them would arise from this tragedy. She said that Brant and Cathy were meeting with insurance officials for most of the day on June 11.

“We had some of the horses escape and they needed care the next day,” Roshelli said. “So, you keep going.” 

The acrid, throat-irritating smoke is still arising from various areas around the barn on June 11. Remnants of gates, stall walls, a bicycle and a burned out automobile dot the area around the perimeter of the once rather stately barn. 

Damage to the barn and the businesses is estimated to be in the millions of dollars. The state Fire Marshall has not yet ruled as to a cause of the fire. 

It’s unclear what the future holds for the barn and the businesses, but the equine and agricultural community have been quick to help however they can.

GoFundMe accounts have been opened for both Brandon and Cathy Brant and Eric Priest. By June 14, the funds had raised $52,270 of the $80,000 for Eric, and $282,000 of the $500,000 for Brandon and Cathy.

“We want Brandon to stay here, said Matthew VanScoy, who provides the barn with loads of sawdust through his wood product business.  “We want to help him in any way we can to rebuild. There’s no one that won’t move mountains to help him…That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s someone everyone really likes.”

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