Loss of a beloved horse, more than storm-devasted house, still stings for JoAnn Kass of Brimfield
BRIMFIELD — JoAnn F. Kass has come to a point in her life where the June 1, 2011, tornado that flattened her home is a fleeting memory, a moment in her past that no longer defines or controls her.
It has been 10 years since Kass and her neighbors were caught in the 38-mile path of a destructive storm, later confirmed by meteorologists as three tornadoes.
Before the severe weather hit, Kass lived in a quaint Colonial home at 51 Paige Hill Road — on 14 acres with majestic trees and a barn that housed four horses.
On June 1, 2011, Kass came home around 4:45 p.m. Hearing that a bad storm was forecast, she turned on the Weather Channel and saw she was in the path of an EF-3 tornado. Then the Emergency Alert System message was broadcast, advising to take shelter immediately.
“It was an absolutely beautiful day,” Kass recalled. “There was no indication that it was even going to be windy, much less have a tornado.”
Horses at risk
With the fast-moving tornado on a collision course with Brimfield, a quick decision had to be made by Kass before getting out of harm’s way, whether to put her four horses in the barn or leave them out. She chose to leave them out.
Roughly 45 seconds after she went downstairs and huddled in the basement, all hell broke loose.
In a matter of 20 seconds, the tornado took the roof off the house. Windows were shattered and personal possessions were scattered across the neighborhood. Her home, two cars, horse trailer and barn were all destroyed.
Minutes later, Kass emerged from the basement to look for the horses.
Dakota, an 18-year-old quarter horse, was fatally struck in the head by an airborne camping trailer that was flung 22 yards.
“Houses can be replaced, but losing Dakota was really tough, especially like that,” Kass said.
In hindsight, Kass knows there is nothing she could have done differently to save the horse. If the horses had been in the barn during the tornado, they would have all died.
“There was nothing we could do. It was a decision. Put them in the barn or leave them out,” Kass said. “If we put them in the barn, all four of them would be dead. We left the barn open. We let them decide, nature’s intuition. There was nowhere for them to go.”
Although she said she still misses him and doesn’t she will ever forget him,Kass takes some solace knowing that Dakota (whom she calls her “best buddy”) died instantly. But, she said, it took a good three years for her to get over the trauma of losing her beloved horse.
The loss of the house, while devastating, was easier for her to get over.
She wonders: Why Dakota?
“We went everywhere together. That horse and I had more miles. That’s why I have a trailer. I put him in the trailer. We go everywhere,” Kass said of Dakota. “And he was the one I always rode. He was always my first choice. When we went beach riding, when we went trail riding, whatever we did, he’s the one who went on the trail, and we went. So, when it happened, one of my really good riding friends came up here and said, ‘Why Dakota?’ Not that you would want to lose any of them but why Dakota? Who knows?”
In addition to Dakota, Cajun, a 9-year-old paint horse, was impaled by a finger-sized piece of wood that penetrated his right rear coffin joint (the intersection of the lowest bones in the horse’s leg) and tendon sheath.
Cajun was in desperate need of medical attention and was taken to the Hospital for Large Animals at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s Hospital for Large Animals at Tufts University in North Grafton.
When people got word of Cajun’s story, an outpouring of generosity followed which led to $6,000 in donations that were directly applied to the horse’s $20,000 medical bill. In the end, Tufts kicked in the $14,000 difference.
As a result of his injuries, Cajun had three surgeries before starting his long road to recovery.
In August 2011, Cajun was reunited with his stablemates but had a hard time adjusting at first.
“He’s still not the same,” Kass said of Cajun.
Another horse, Triple X Mouse, suffered minor cuts and lacerations, and Dragonfly, a pony, suffered an eye injury. Today, Cajun, Triple X Mouse and Dragonfly are all alive and kicking on Kass’ land on Paige Hill Road. Cajun and Triple X Mouse have a new horse buddy, Doc, while Dragonfly is staying at a friend’s house.
Kass said a 15-foot-wall of downed trees, power lines and debris blocked the whole stretch of her 900-foot driveway.
Everything upstairs in the home was ruined. The roof was gone. One of the walls of the garage ended up in the built-in swimming pool. In addition to the damage to the house, Kass lost a 40-foot-by-50-foot barn.
“I just remember looking like we got hit by a tornado,” Kass said. “It was a mess. It was shocking.”
In the aftermath of the tornado, there were thousands of snapped trees on their 14-acre property. Besides being an eyesore, the property lost its natural wind and noise resistance, so much so that Kass could clearly hear conversations of neighbors’ streets away and trucks traveling on Route 20, which she never could hear before the tornado.
“Before we had totally privacy and now you can see us from every road, everywhere. That took getting used to but that is our new normal,” Kass said. “Everybody who comes up here always says you have a million-dollar view. It wasn’t what I had in mind…I just don’t pay attention to it anymore. You get used to anything, right?”
Kass said she felt trapped by the Herculean task of cleaning up thousands of snapped trees with no end in sight.
“We never will be (cleaned up), Kass said. “There is still a lot of stuff on the ground.”
Brush fire in 2012
Nature struck another blow April 4, 2012, when a tornado-debris-fueled brush fire burned 40 to 50 acres near the Kass’ backyard.
Kass said insurance pays nothing toward tree removal on their property and they think the state or federal government should have helped out because families and their homes are at extreme risk of fire, as was demonstrated in April 2012.
“There was a big risk of fire,” she said.
Approaching the 10-year mark, the first thing Kass thinks about is not their beloved house or barn that were destroyed or the irreplaceable family photos and personal affects that were lost – it’s the loss of Dakota.
“Time passes. You know they say time heals old wounds. It really does,” Kass said. “I’m not one that dwells on bad stuff or the past. You move on. I had to get through that. And, at the time, it was tough. But, now it’s the past.”
Although it is still difficult to deal with the devastating loss, one thing that eases the pain a little for Kass, was seeing Triple X Mouse standing over Dakota’s lifeless body moments after the devastating blow. It is an image that he will never forget.
“Mouse is the head of his herd. And he was standing with his nose right on Dakota’s belly,” Kass said. “I still get chills.”
After the tornado was over, Kass was completely cut off from the outside world. Surrounded by nothing but downed trees, nobody could get to her property, nor could she get off.
When she saw Dakota down, Kass called 911 and the dispatcher asked her if there were any human causalities. When Kass said, “No,” the dispatcher told her that they wouldn’t be able to respond anytime soon.
With injured horses and a house that could collapse at any minute, Kass got very little of what resembled sleep on the first night.
Kass didn’t make contact with the outside world until the following evening, when a small army of volunteers armed with chain saws and a Bobcat cut a path just wide enough for an equine ambulance to get up the long and winding driveway.
“We could hear them. We could hear them in the distance and we were like, ‘Are they coming here?’” she said. “It took them the entire day to get a path barely wide enough for a vehicle.”
While it took some doing, Ms. Kass said the tornado is finally behind her.
A new house
Construction on the new house was finished shortly after the two-year anniversary of the tornado, a welcome alternative to living in a trailer in the backyard, which she did for 15 months.
“I like my old house better,” she said. “I don’t care for new construction. That’s just me. So I like the old house better.”
Despite what she went through, the sleepless nights and the seemingly endless mountains of paperwork that followed, Kass said she is now in a good place in her life.
“Mentally, I got back to a good place pretty quickly because I had the support of friends and family and strangers and everybody. So I felt incredibly supported,” Kass said. “As far as normal living, that took a couple of years. But, as far as after the initial shock was over, the support was just amazing.”
And, Kass said, the insurance company was good to deal with.
“In the beginning, it took them (the insurance company) awhile to get going because, I think, there were so many losses,” she said. “But, once they got going, they were fair with us and everything. I don’t have any complaints. There was a time we weren’t sure but it ended up being ok.”
Kass said she gained a lot of new friends, lifetime friends, from the experience and received a tremendous outpouring of support from strangers, some of whom are no longer strangers.
And despite all the losses, Kass said a lot of good has come out of this horrible ordeal.
“People were wonderful. People were amazing. They just really were amazing,” Kass said. “People that I’ll never see again or talk to again, some came for a day, some came every day for a week, some came all summer, are just wonderful, good-hearted people. It amazed me every day. Every morning, I’d see people walking up this driveway by the dozen and it just amazed me. It could have been so much worse and it wasn’t.”