WANATAH – What should have been a celebration Sunday night turned into a much more somber affair after a fire in Wanatah burned down a large pigeon loft, killing nearly 2,000 birds and the owners' dogs.
"Many have read on Facebook and an email from iPigeon that the Hoosier Loft has burned down overnight," owners James and Kelly Ward posted on their website Sunday. "It is in fact true and we as a family are completely devastated. We are heartbroken at this time and are trying to process the events from overnight.
"Our family has spent hundreds of hours working in this loft and it has become our life. We are thankful that our children are safe, but we are devastated at the loss of something that we lived to do on a daily basis. We are at a loss for words at this time."
The La Porte County Sheriff's Department received a 911 call about 2:15 a.m. Sunday from a woman who said she was driving along U.S. 30 when she saw the fire. She said she went to the home in the 10000 block of CR-1150W and woke the residents, whom she knew, then reported the fire.
The first deputy on the scene saw a "large L-shaped barn, fully engulfed, and the fire spreading to a harvested corn field to the north," according to a police report.
Ward told officers his family had gone to bed about 11 p.m. and everything was OK, according to the report. He said the barn was housing about 1,900 racing pigeons, some belonging to him and some housed for others. There were also five dogs in the building.
There were no heaters in the barn or anything flammable stored there, Ward told the deputy, and no one was at the residence except the family so he was "unsure of anything that may have caused the fire." He estimated the loss at about $1 million, according to the report.
About that time, firefighters from the Cass-Clinton, Westville and LaCrosse volunteer fire departments arrived, the report said. The Class-Clinton fire chief told the deputy they were "not be able to determine where or how the fire started for a long period of time due to the size of the fire," according to the report, but added, "it did not appear suspicious."
At the time of the fire, the Hoosier Loft was sponsoring the seventh annual Hoosier Classic Million Dollar Race, billed as the biggest one loft race in North America, with more than 800 breeders from around the world taking part.
The final race of the event was to take place Monday, while the celebration banquet at the Blue Chip Casino Hotel and Spa in Michigan City was Sunday night. There was not a lot to celebrate.
"The Hoosier one race loft burned to the ground last night and all is lost," the Wards wrote. "All participating pigeons died because of this immense tragedy."
The loft was 16 feet by 280 feet, with an attached fly pen of 12 feet by 200 feet, and was able to accommodate 7,500 pigeons, according to race website.
"We are waiting on a professional inspection of 'cause and origin' to determine the cause," he wrote. "Once we know the cause we will share this information with everyone. There has been much speculation as to how this may have happened. We will not jump to conclusions until a professional finding is released."
A spokesman for the sheriff's department said Tuesday the fire remains under investigation.
The final race, which was to start in Matthews, Missouri, offered cash prizes of up to $500,000, the race website said. Ward said prize money will be paid for races that were completed, and money will be refunded for entries in the final race.
He also said he plans to rebuild.
"... our plan is to start building a new loft in a couple of weeks. ... We understand some may be angry or disappointed in what happened this season as are we. ... We are resilient, we are workers, we love this sport and we love what we do."
Mike Ganus, who owns lofts in La Porte and Granger, said in a post on a pigeon racing website that he was saddened by the news.
"The Hoosier Loft has burnt down and there is nothing left – it's very sad. Please do not go to Jim's place. He and his family are in shock and saddened by the loss – four of his dogs also were killed. Let's pray that Jim and Kelly and Family can make it through all this. They put a lot of time in building the loft and taking care of your pigeons. This is a bad time for our sport."
Ganus said the racing community needs to stay unified. "We all need to stick together and pray and support Jim Ward's family. With everyone’s support maybe we all can make it through this crisis..."
Attempts to reach the Wards by phone on Tuesday were unsuccessful, and an email seeking more information was not responded to Tuesday afternoon.