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By Eric Creamer - The Sun Staff - The Sun Rhode Island March 20, 2006

CHARLESTOWN - Many friends were lost in a fire that raged at Old Coach Farm late Saturday night and early Sunday.

That was how horse riding instructor Gian Leiss described the outcome of the blaze that destroyed a large barn and stable at 410 Old Coach Road and killed all 13 horses inside. After firefighters were able to put out the fire, only ashes remained on the site Sunday morning.

Farm owners Arvid Autio and Donna Gardiner, distraught over the loss, wished not to talk to the press, but Leiss did call the incident "a tragedy."

"This will impact the students and the other instructors a lot," said Leiss, who has been an instructor at Old Coach Farm for two years. "This was a big part of my income, and I know this will hurt a lot of people emotionally and financially."

Leiss was somber and obviously shaken about the death of the horses. Of the 13, nine were not owned by Autio and Gardiner, but were boarded at the farm.

"I lost of lot of my friends in the fire," she said.

According to Charlestown Police Lt. Robert Craig on Sunday afternoon, "the fire doesn't appear to be suspicious," and is "still under investigation."

State Fire Marshal John Wheeler, who has taken over the investigation, also said this morning that "the fire is still under investigation and I can't say anything more than that at this time." No damage was sustained to the owners' home, which is several yards away from the barn.

Craig said a "passer-by driving on Old Coach Road called the police at 11:45 p.m. Saturday night and then other phone lines lit up. I'm not sure how (the owners) first found out about the fire. Someone may have knocked on their door."

He said that the barn was "fully engulfed when the first officer arrived," and "no one could get near the building. It a hot and fast-moving fire." Craig noted that the wood barn caught quickly because the wind was strong at the time and that all four walls were covered in flame and the roof caved in.

There was speculation from a member of the family who did not want to be identified Sunday that the fire started at the center of the barn and may have been an electrical fire. Charlestown-Richmond Fire District Chief Donald Rathbun said this morning that Wheeler was "checking the mechanical room" in the barn early Sunday morning and went back later in the day to further investigate.

"At this time, to my knowledge, the cause of the fire is undetermined," Rathbun said.

Numerous fire trucks arrived. Rathbun said that six engines and five tanker trucks arrived from the Charlestown-Richmond and Cross Mills Fire districts, while units from the Richmond-Carolina, Hope Valley and Dunn's Corners Fire Districts and trucks from the West Kingston station of the Union Fire District in South Kingstown arrived to help. He said some water was taken from the pond behind the nearby Nordic Lodge on East Pasquisset Trail, and the last fire trucks left the site at 3 a.m.

According to the farm's Web site,, the barn facilities included a stalls, a common-area chat room, a wash stall as well as indoor and outdoor riding rings.

"Old Coach Farm provides personalized riding lessons in all disciplines (Western and English) for all ages," the web site stated. The farm also offers a summer riding camp from June through August.

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