Wild horses: Equine encounters of the worst kind
Pooh Johnson still shudders when she thinks how much worse it could have been. She's the owner of the two horses who fled her farm Thanksgiving Day and ran head-on into 70mph traffic on Interstate 64.
Johnson's chestnut mare, Bunny, collided with a westbound Nissan SUV driven by David Firth, 62, of Lynchburg. Jaws of life were necessary to extract Firth from beneath the sheared-off roof of his crumpled vehicle before he and his wife, Kathy, were taken to UVA Medical Center with serious, but non-life threatening, injuries.
Johnson, who owns Old Poorhouse Farm on Black Cat Road in Keswick, says her daughter had been riding, had groomed the horses, and was putting Bunny in the paddock around dusk when she heard gunshots.
"The horse backed up when going through the gate and started down the drive," says Johnson, who was in Richmond when the escape occurred. "The other one followed."
She's still puzzled about the direction the horses took.
"Why would they leave the farm and head to the interstate with all that noise and lights?" Johnson wonders. "I almost think she went nuts."
Bunny, whom Johnson says was between 18 and 20 years old, was killed by the collision, but Johnson's daughter was able to walk the other horse, a white male named Spanky, back to the farm. "It's a miracle he wasn't killed," says Johnson.
Johnson has lived at Old Poorhouse since 1971 and remembers one other horse getting loose during those 40 years when a gate swung open and jammed. That horse was captured before reaching I-64, which lies less than half a mile to the south of the farm.
Johnson says she's spoken several time to the Firths, who were released from UVA Medical Center November 28, since the accident.
"I don't want to talk to reporters right now," says Kathy Firth from her home in Lynchburg.
"It could have been so much worse," says Johnson.
Indeed, in 1988, Fluvanna School Superintendent Dr. James Albert, 62, was heading home to Lake Monticello on I-64 around 1:15am when a horse moved into the eastbound path of his 1984 Ford station wagon. Three horses had wandered away from Charlottesville Livestock Market and had reached the interstate median east of the Route 20 exit.
Albert, who'd been returning from Waynesboro after having been named a regional president of the Boy Scouts of America, was killed immediately, as was the horse.
"It was embedded in the front of the car," says Albert's sister, Jean Firkins, 91, who lives in Alexandria. "The worst thing I ever had to tell my mother was that Jim had died," says Firkins. "He was the beacon in her life."
Albert's widow, Jeanne, now deceased, sued Charlottesville Livestock Market for negligence, and in November 1989, settled out of court for $600,000.
"Owners need to take responsibility," says Firkins. "This happened in the middle of the night, and those horses certainly should have been secured."
"There was evidence a gate wasn't locked," says Charlottesville attorney Brock Green, who represented Mrs. Albert and points out that state statute requires anyone keeping farm animals to keep them away from public roads.
"If it's a normal horse jumping the fence because it was spooked, it's going to be hard to prove negligence," says Green, noting the common law theory of negligence requires anyone keeping animals to prevent them from wandering.
While police say they don't specifically track horse-vehicle collisions, more than 23 years after educator Albert's death, the November 24 crash struck a powerful chord with Green.
"It's their size," says Green of the often thousand-pound animals. "You hit one, and it can do a lot of damage."
The recent incident also resonated with Karen Johnson. Co-owner of the Keswick-area Limestone Spring Farm, she lost two horses to a collision on Richmond Road in February.
"It brought back such horrible memories," says Johnson, who says she's still not sure exactly how four horses followed a "very ingenious" mare through an open gate on the farm, which lies just to the south of I-64. "I have no idea how that happened," she says.
A Subaru Outback driver heading east hit six-year-old Misty, and then Misty's colt, Gunny, aged two, who died at the scene.
"I had to call the vet to have [Misty] euthanized," says Karen Johnson.
The driver had some injuries and was taken to a hospital, according to Albemarle police spokesman Darrell Byers, and the car's damage was significant. He was not charged, nor was Johnson.
"I did change the way the gate is secured," says a still-shaken Karen Johnson, who says her husband, out of town when the accident occurred, improved the gate when he returned.
Even nine months later, she says, "It was a horrible experience."