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Firefighters work to bring a blaze under control at the Classy Lane Stables, in Puslinch, Ont., on January 5, 2015. Forty horses were killed when a fire engulfed a stable building at the facility near Guelph, Ontario.

A wall of smoke engulfed Chantal Mitchell and her boyfriend as they tried desperately to make their way into a burning barn to free more than three dozen racehorses from their stalls. The blaze was too intense and they couldn't get past the threshold.

For the next 20 minutes on Monday night, as they waited in the minus-12-degree cold for firefighters to arrive, Ms. Mitchell and Chris DiCenzo listened to 42 horses crying out as they panicked, and perished.

"That was the most horrifying and difficult part, that we couldn't do anything," she said in an interview. "We were all just sitting there and you could hear the horses inside. We felt so helpless. We couldn't do anything for them. That was the worst part about it."

Ms. Mitchell, 28, a horse trainer and owner who lives in Hamilton, said she and Mr. DiCenzo lost 11 animals in the fire along with three miniature horses they kept as pets.

The disaster occurred at Classy Lane Stables Training Centre, one of Canada's top harness-racing facilities, in Puslinch, Ont., near Guelph.

As of Tuesday evening, fire authorities had not said what may have triggered the fire.

Nearly 12 hours after it began at about 11 p.m. on Monday, white smoke still rose softly from the scorched remains of Barn 1 at the Classy Lane facility, situated on a farm midway between Guelph and Hamilton.

Horse trainer and owner Ben Wallace of Milton, Ont., lost 17 animals in the fire, including Apprentice Hanover, a four-year-old pacer that had lifetime earnings of slightly more than $1.02-million.

"It's heinous, it's just the worst situation," Mr. Wallace said. "There's 42 corpses lying over there and it's like identifying your family."

He said he has lost everything in the blaze. "I don't even have a stopwatch," he said.

The horses died in their stalls, likely from smoke inhalation before the flames reached them, said Jason Benn, chief fire prevention officer for Puslinch Fire and Rescue Service.

The barn had no sprinkler system, common in rural buildings, Mr. Benn said.

Classy Lane Stables was the dream project of Jamie Millier and his wife, Barb, and was touted as a top standardbred-training facility when it opened in May, 2003. The 135-acre complex included five barns, an all-weather racetrack and 31 paddocks.

Mr. Millier said he felt close to having a heart attack when he heard the news.

He said he was surprised the fire spread so quickly. The barn, a structure with steel walls and a concrete floor, was only a dozen years old. "It's hard to believe that fire can spread that quick, cause that much damage," he said.

There was electrical heating and sawdust and rubber mats in each horse's pen, but the wiring had been inspected in the fall for insurance purposes and no deficiencies were spotted, Mr. Millier added.

‎There were about 220 horses on the property at the time, spread among five barns.

The fire was reported about the time that Ms. Mitchell said she arrived on the scene, returning from Toronto after attending a racing card at Woodbine Racetrack.

She said the fire appeared to be fully involved by the time she got there and her first instinct was to try to save the horses.

"As we opened the door, it was just overwhelming," she said. "We tried to move in, but were driven back by clouds of thick, white smoke. Big hunks of the ceiling were already starting to fall down, lights were exploding and windows along the side of the building were starting to blow in."

More than 50 firefighters from five local services battled the blaze during the night. They worked in harsh, frigid weather, hampered by a water line that was half-frozen, Mr. Benn said.

The fire was so intense that it could be seen two concessions away, a distance of more than three kilometres, he added.

"The wind, luckily, was blowing in the right direction and didn't bring [the flames] to any other barns," Mr. Millier said.

The barn is now unsafe and has to be torn down. Heavy machinery already was parked outside. The Ministry of Agriculture also has to remove the carcasses of the horses.

The roof had collapsed, the ash-white walls had buckled and ice stalactites gripped the edges of the broken windows and door.

Barn 1 housed horses tended by prominent trainers such as Mr. Wallace, Roger Mayotte and Dan Lagace. Many of the horses were not insured, an expensive proposition not uncommon to the sport.

"It's very tough for the industry," Mr. Millier said. "There are five companies that are out of business right now, because they've got no horses to train. The help has no jobs. The trainers have no horses to train."

He also alluded to the emotional bond between the trainers and their animals. "The job loss is almost secondary to losing somebody that they spend seven, eight hours a day with."

Shelley Purvis, whose husband, Frank, worked at the barn for Mr. Wallace, said she hoped the horses didn't suffer and died quickly. "It's like losing a nursing home or something. You don't get over these things," Ms. Purvis said.

The barn fire is the worst to strike in Ontario since 2002, when 32 thoroughbreds died at Woodbine Racetrack, just north of Toronto.