JOHNSTOWN - The woman who owned the animals that perished in a barn fire Sunday thinks a propane heater she'd set up on the frigid night was knocked over by one of her goats, igniting the blaze.
"I had a propane heater to heat my water line [inside the barn]," a tearful Robin Dillenbeck said Monday. "The only thing I can think of is one of the goats tipped it over."
Sir William Johnson Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ken Felthousen Jr. said today officials are continuing to investigate the blaze on County Highway 156 in the town, which burned and collapsed the barn, killing about 190 animals.
Felthousen's company and four other volunteer fire companies battled the fire Sunday night under sub-zero conditions. No people were hurt in the blaze.
He said the county Fire Investigation Team is working to determine the cause. Fulton County Fire Coordinator Allan Polmateer couldn't be reached for comment this morning.
An anguished Dillenbeck said during a brief interview outside her Sammonsville home Monday that she owned and cared for about 200 animals at the barn. She said she was there about 4 p.m. Sunday, about three hours before fire was reported in a 911 call by neighbor Victor Acquilla.
Dillenbeck said that of the 200 animals, only about 10 were saved. They are now being cared for at nearby farms. She said those 10 surviving animals were goats and sheep. She said most of her animals were goats and sheep, although she also had two pigs, two dogs and a llama. She said she was also raising a steer, which may have died in the blaze.
Sue Perry of LaGrange Road in the town of Johnstown said Dillenbeck is a "very kind" and hard-working woman who would do anything to pay for the upkeep of her animals. She said that Dillenbeck, who works as a custodian at Knox Junior High School in Johnstown, also works for her.
"She milks cows at our farm three days a week," Perry said. "There isn't a more caring and loving person when it comes to animals. She loves animals."
Felthousen said this morning he hadn't talked to Dillenbeck about the fire. But other than quelling the fire Sunday night, he said the Sir William Johnson Volunteer Fire Department's involvement in the investigation is "pretty much" over. He didn't think Polmateer had talked to Dillenbeck, either, as authorities are having trouble contacting her.
"I couldn't get a hold of her," Felthousen said.
Dillenbeck, who has an unlisted telephone number, said Monday she hadn't yet talked to authorities.
The fire chief said dead animals still lie under the barn debris, so the chore is not only to find the cause of the fire, but also to remove the carcasses.
Dillenbeck leases the barn and property from Semen and Sofia Demkiw of Queens. Sofia Demkiw said today that she and her husband own multiple properties in Fulton County, including a parcel in Bleecker. She said she and her husband were contacted after the barn fire and later talked to Dillenbeck, who she said is responsible for the property.
"I talked to her. She said she's going to clean it up," Demkiw said.
Demkiw, who called the fire "terrible," said Dillenbeck was a responsible tenant and had a year left on the lease.
"She wanted to take care of the farm," she said.
The farm was investigated by local authorities in March 2008, when at least 40 dead goats were found. Officials at the time said Dillenbeck was cooperative and the dead animals were disposed of. Authorities also found 150 goats alive, but in poor condition.
At the time, Dillenbeck was charged by the Fulton County Sheriff's Department with one count of misdemeanor failure to provide sustenance to an animal under the state Agriculture & Markets Law. That case was handled through Johnstown Town Court and Dillenbeck voluntarily thinned out her herds.
Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.