The below is Gail’s story, as told to Marion McKinnon in 1999 for her book “Violet Murrell and Garryowen – Their Story” (out of print)
We were on a high after being placed 3rd in the World Cup in Adelaide, on Rock Star. By then he was an up and coming super star to me, even though he was only 8 years old but proving to be very talented.
My Mum and I both wanted to get home to Dad and take old Midnight Star home before going to Royal Melbourne Show. It was a cold, windy, rainy night. I was hoping to make Mildura for the night.
It was just on dusk when I turned on the lights of the truck because the rain made it darker earlier. About 1 hour after doing so I noticed the lights dimming, on and off. I started to worry for we were on a lonely stretch of the Sturt Highway, near Truro, South Australia. I checked my mirrors and noticed sparks around a clearance light. Panicking a little, I pulled over as soon as I could, and as I slowed it became clear that flames were billowing out the windows.
I yelled to Mum, “We’re on fire. The horses!” I ran to the tail gate as I knew if I opened the back the wind would fuel the fire more. So I tried to get to the horses through the caravan section, but this was useless. The doors were too narrow to get a horse out, so running to the back again I prayed while opening the back. Flames flew everywhere.
Toby (“Umatilla Rancher”) was well alight, his synthetic rug stuck to his neck. I tried to open the dividers, burning my hands. I just let him go down the road hoping for the best. Midnight’s rugs were burning. He had been given to me for my 16th birthday. My heart almost stopped when he looked at me and nickered. I opened his divider but he jumped around and collapsed. I had to then concentrate on saving Hank (“Rock Star”). The flames were too much to go through. I again tried the caravan section to no avail. I had a fire extinguisher but no time to open it as I was running back to the trailer trying very hard to do so, but my hands were too burned. I jumped over Midnight, burning my foot on his synthetic bandages which stuck to my leg, catching my jeans alight. I brushed out the flames but lost my shoe. This was all in seconds.
Then I was trying to get Hank to climb back off the feed bins, which he had climbed onto like a cat. He refused to go back through the fire and over the dead horse. But with a lot of harsh persuasion he did jump out. I noticed his eyes not reflecting in a cars lights and thought they looked white. His woollen rugs were still all intact. Still trying to open the fire extinguisher a truckie appeared and opened it and gave it to Mum. I grabbed it back and with my burnt hands tried to put out the fire but couldn’t. Fortunately another truckie came to my rescue.
I stopped a 4 wheel drive and asked the driver to ring a vet. A fireman turned up wanting someone to turn the truck around to stop the wind fuelling the fire and to clear the road. But no one would. I jumped in not realising my right foot was a melon sized blister and my hands couldn’t close. Somehow I turned the truck around. A fireman pulled me out and carried me to the ambulance. I wouldn’t let the ambulance leave until I saw the horses. I went looking for Toby and found him well up the road, but straddled across a wire fence and held by a man patting him. Then we managed to cut him out of the fence.
The vet arrived soon after, assuring me he’d take care of them. What a Great Guy! He knew he couldn’t handle them alone but organised to borrow some total stranger’s float and car and both horses went straight on to the float and travelled about 1 hour, to Gawler Equine Clinic.
A nearby farm house took my wonderful Mum in and looked after her and my old dog Tootie. I still call in and visit then whenever we go to Adelaide. Sandy and Bill Harbisson and the rest of the vet team rang me throughout the night, keeping me up to date, for it was touch and go for Hank. He had collapsed on arrival, with his airways and lungs burnt and so he couldn’t breathe. They had to perform a tracheotomy half way down his neck, then insert oxygen so he could breathe.
I was discharged from hospital to go to Adelaide Burns Unit, but I was too worried about the horses to go. There are some wonderful, wonderful people, among them Denis and Cynthia Shipp, who took Mum and me home to their house in Keswick and took care of the truck and anything we needed. I had only met the Shipp family during the Adelaide Show. They are still the best friends you would ever want.
The first trip to the vets was the hardest for me. I found it hard to work up the courage knowing the horses still may die. As I hobbled in to the clinic on crutches, with my burnt hands, I was warned of the worst. But nothing could prepare me for the smell of burnt horse flesh and hair as well as the DMSO smell of the drugs etc. The smell was horrendous. The sight of Hank cross tied to keep the oxygen tank attached, with IV fluids and medication on drips, and with both his eyes swollen shut was horrifying. His head was swollen so huge that his head-collar wouldn’t fit.
Then there was Toby. Well, he looked fine at first with only one eye swollen, but as the days went by his neck, face and shoulders were like cardboard. You could knock on the dying skin and then it started to lift and die in layers. This went on for months. Maggots would get under the dead skin, eating it. We would have to bathe it many times a day. Being such a large area we had to buy bulk Vitamin E and blend it up with Aloe Vera plants, thus mixing our own potion for him. I would walk the two of them as often as I could. What a sight – me hobbling with a blind horse and pushing oxygen tanks and drips. But Hank never gave up his fight.
I sat with him all night, but one night we thought he was verging on pneumonia. He was shaking and looked awful, but again, he fought on. The vets worked around the clock with eye treatments, for both the horses’ eyes ulcerated from infections. So the treatment was carried out every 2 hours. One of Hank’s eyes was OK but it was a big worry for after a while he looked like losing both. These eye problems went on for weeks, having surgery on many occasions. The thought of having a blind horse was not good.
As the weeks went on with me travelling home to Morisset and back to Adelaide then on to Gawler, the tension grew. I decided to give up showjumping, for having to start all over with a new team of horses and no money, was too much. But financial support came from all over Australia, Hong Kong, even school children sent me their pocket money. And the cards, flowers and letters were wondrous. I am still receiving letters from children who have lost a loved horse, asking how to cope. Many children and adults still come to shows to see Hank and give him a hug or a carrot. I have made so many friends from all over Australia since the fire – some I speak with and keep in touch. With others, their kindness is still in my heart.
John Fahey organised an appeal which went on for months. So now I couldn’t give up. Too many people gave me and the horses so much support. So after 3 months of intensive veterinary care at Gawler Equine Clinic they became stable enough to move nearer to home in time for Christmas. We had to move them slowly, stopping every 2 hours for a rest. We were headed for Derek Major’s Agnes Banks Equine Clinic at Richmond. This was where the next step came in to place. We had to find out how much lung damage and eyesight Hank had and how much skin damage and what grafts were needed for Toby. As usual the vets were The Best. Derek Major started grafting Toby’s skin and testing Hank’s lungs and eyesight. After 2 weeks they were finally home. But this time, under my full care.
A parcel came on Christmas Day from Tasmania. Jan and David Barnett, total strangers at that time, had sent me all new gear from Hobart Saddlery to replace the burnt gear. What a wonderfully generous surprise!
The first night home, Toby decided to rub his paper-thin skin and grafts on the stable door. When I went down to feed them, there was a pool of blood and congealed blood hanging from Tobe’s neck. I burst into tears fearing all the grafts were gone. Soon after cleaning him up and talking to Derek he consoled me saying it was only because the skin was so thin that there was so much blood. We took Toby back for more grafts which all took like a crop of wheat, due to the homeopathic drops donated by Robyn Gozee of Queensland.
Neither of the horses could go out in the sun so I would walk them very early in the day. Hank would cough and splutter with only a few minutes of walking on the lead. But he progressively got better and better. Finally I was able to lunge him at the trot.
I took both Hank and Toby back to the Agnes Banks Clinic after a couple of months. Toby had more skin grafts and Hank had his lungs tested and given the thumbs up to go into full work.
To my astonishment, both horses went back in to it where they had left off. By May 1992 they were winning in the jumping ring again. The first show was at Dubbo. I won Champion Showjumper. In the midst of all that was going on, I started off a young horse which was quite mad. No one could ride him. I persevered with him and tried to sell him too. But no one could ride him. Yet this young horse, in 1992, became Champion Part 3 horse at Royal Melbourne Show and is currently the 1998 Australian Showjumping Champion, Yabba Dabba Doo.
This same year, at the Melbourne Royal, Toby jumped with his black hood on to protect his neck and was able to claim a record high jump for the RAS of 6’6”. He went on to win many events.
Until I retired him as a junior horse, he went on to train the Willis children who won at the Sydney Royal, the NSW State Championships and the Equestrian Federation of Australia’s Junior Rider of the Year – all due to Toby. He was semi-retired, in a 25 acre paddock, occasionally hunting and plodding around the Hunter Valley vineyards as a gentle giant. Sadly, he passed away in the paddock soon after his retirement.
Hank is now 17 years old and still loves to jump and compete. He recently was placed 5th Mini Prix at Carrara, Queensland and still places in A & B grade events. His eyesight is not great, but he and I have a partnership of trust. He will jump anything. His lungs are good. He has little burnt-off ears and scarring on the lower part of his nose and face. He recently won the Junior Grand Prix at Sydney Royal Show and the Super Junior 2000 Showjumping Championship.
The pure wool rugs saved his life, for sure. If it hadn’t been for the dedicated vets and the support from the people of Australia, friends and family, my special Mum and Dad as well as the huge hearts of Hank and Toby, I would not be competing today. Therefore I would not be the 1998 Australian Showjumping Champion.
The year 1991 was the fire; 1992 was the year of starting over, and in 1993 I was starting to get back on top. By 1994-95 I became 4th overall in the World Cup series, then Champion Showjumper at the Sydney Royal Show. In 1996/97 I had a year off to have a baby boy – Jake, but then I came back again in 1998 to win a World Cup in the town close to my heart, Mallala, up the road from Gawler, and where the accident happened. I represented Australia in the winning team in New Zealand in 1999.
It was great to catch up with all the people who helped me and to show off the new team member taking over from Hank. Yabba Dabba Doo even looked the same as Hank. He copied Hank in every way. They were like brothers. Both were rejects of the racetrack and both came from the same racing stables belonging to my dear friends Robyn and Tess Hoystead.
I have since had to sell Yabba Dabba Doo to the United Kingdom and have started again (after the birth of my second son Cade) with a new younger team, with Rock Star still the old “star”.
In summing up my life in showjumping, with all the setbacks from the fire, I was totally unprepared (and still feel let down) when my horses’ passports were revoked in 1996 prior to the Atlanta Olympics. My comfort during the year off was to have my darling baby and I was helped by my horses pulling me through the hard times, especially when Cade was so sick during the first year of his life.
I know I won so well because of the faith of my husband Craig, my loyal and wonderful parents, and by the Australian public’s responses.
I therefore dedicate this story to the people of Australia, and my loved family.
Gail Hunter (nee Powell)