WESTFORD — “The weather is just so bad,” a grim Robert Haigh said on Friday afternoon. “Mother Nature hates us.”
Haigh uttered those words at the end of a long and harrowing day, after a metal Quonset hut used as a barn on his ranch had buckled under snow, trapping several horses inside and leading to a large-scale rescue effort that ultimately was not able to save two of the animals.
Workers used farm tractors to peel back portions of the hut and free some of the horses at Bobby’s Ranch as a veterinarian and then firefighters arrived, said Haigh, 84, who opened the ranch in 1972 as a summer activity for his son and daughter. The riding stable offers trail rides to the public.
The deaths served as another reminder of the dangers brought by the record-breaking snowstorms that have barraged Massachusetts this year. Most of the horses inside the hut did survive.
“After a long technical rescue, unfortunately, the outcome wasn’t what we were hoping for,” fire Lieutenant Donald Parsons said just after 3:30 p.m. “So it’s now a recovery of two horses that did not survive.”
The rescue operation featured emergency personnel from several communities and a number of civilian volunteers.
Haigh said about 32 horses live on the portion of the ranch where the collapse occurred, but he did not know how many had been inside when the structure buckled because horses come and go from that barn, called “the dining room,” to feed.
The horses that died were Cisco, which belonged to Haigh, and King, a horse whose owner boarded it at the ranch, he said.
“I just wish it didn’t happen,” a stoic Haigh said. “That’s all you can do.”
Haigh said he had tried to clear off the roof of the 40-foot-wide Quonset hut, pushing snow from the southern side so that it fell down to the north, but he was unable to approach the building from the north using farm equipment because that area is protected by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
It is too dangerous, he said, to climb on top of the structure.
After heavy snow a few years ago caused the arched hut to bow slightly, he reinforced the structure with a truss supported by four telephone poles, Haigh said, but earlier this week, that framework began to twist under the weight of the snow.
On Friday afternoon, Haigh was left wondering how he would clear the flat roof, about 40 feet high, of his central barn, where rescued horses were feeding and being tended by ranch workers and volunteers.
Nearby, the twisted ends of the Quonset hut still maintained an arched shape, but its center sagged deeply. At the eastern entrance, peeled-back sections of metal resembled aluminum foil wadded by a giant hand.
“The way that it works is that if a portion of it fails, the whole thing fails,” Parsons said.
State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said at the scene that rescuers “worked very, very hard, and at the end of the day everyone truly understands the relationship between a horse and an owner, and it really drove these men and women to do all they could.”
“Sometimes it’s just not in the cards,” Coan said.
He said rescuers spent several hours clearing debris to reach the two animals, only to find that they had been fatally injured.
“It was an intense and coordinated team approach,” he said, involving veterinarians, horse owners, Westford firefighters, and the Essex County Technical Rescue Team.
Coan said the tragedy should serve as a cautionary tale about the possibility of roof collapses from recent snowfall. Officials have advised Massachusetts residents to clear roofs after a series of snowstorms hammered the state.
With rain expected over the weekend, forecasters say the danger will increase, as the existing snow soaks up water and becomes heavier.