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Heroic effort to rescue horse from tank fails

Firefighters, deputies, a tank crew, a tow truck and a vet try to pull an old mare from a septic tank.

[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Fred Fouts pets the paint mare trapped Monday in an old septic tank at the house he rents in east Pasco County.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000

DADE CITY -- Blind in one eye and approaching 30, the old paint mare didn't have much time left.

But she had a new owner, an open field to graze and a group of neighborhood kids who showered her with affection.

Then, on Monday, someone forgot to close the gate that kept her from venturing into the barnyard. The mare stepped through a thin concrete cover and into an old septic tank.

Fred Fouts came home from work just before 5 p.m. and saw her head bobbing up and down as she tried in vain to escape.

For more than an hour, firefighters, sheriff's deputies, a septic tank crew, a tow truck and a veterinarian worked frantically to pull the 1,200-pound animal to safety. But finally, as firefighters tried to thread a water hose under her belly to hoist her up, she collapsed and closed her eyes for the last time.

"It was the best thing that could have happened," said Dr. Chet Taylor, a Dade City veterinarian who theorized the horse slipped into shock after hours of struggling. "Once you give all you've got, eventually you give up and go into shock."

Fouts, who rents the property, said the mare could have been trapped in the hole since he left for work at 10 a.m.

The owner of the property, at 27509 State Road 52 in east Pasco County, said he adopted the horse about a month ago. But Raul Charbonier said he hadn't named her.

"This is very sad," Charbonier, 46, said Monday night from the Tampa bar he owns. "I was just trying to give her a place to eat a little grass."

The mare was so panicked when rescue crews arrived that a sheriff's deputy had to tranquilize her. In futile attempts to climb out of the small square pit, she had cut her chin on a sharp concrete edge.

As Fouts soaked the mare's head with cool water from a garden hose, a septic truck backed up to the hole and suctioned out the sewage. Using long poles, firefighters tried to push a hose underneath the mare so they could lift her. But the mare's leg muscles began to quiver, and she collapsed.

In one final attempt to free her, San Antonio volunteer firefighter Doug Juraszek lowered himself into the hole and worked the hose underneath the mare. But her cold body suddenly went limp, her eyes closed and Juraszek dejectedly climbed out of the pit.

"That's why I do this job, to help save lives," said Juraszek. "It doesn't matter if it's a dog, an old horse or a person.

"Maybe if we could have gotten to her sooner . . ." he said, his voice trailing off. "Maybe we could have at least gotten her out, and she wouldn't have had to die in pain."

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