Fire at Governor’s Mansion in Austin ruled arson

By | June 8, 2008

It is sadly so much easier to create than destroy.

An early morning fire at the Governor’s Mansion today was intentionally set, a state fire investigator said.

State Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado declined to discuss further details but said there was no indication the fire was intended as a direct threat to Gov. Rick Perry.

No one was in the building, which has been closed several months for renovation, when the fire broke out. The governor has been living in a rented house in suburban Austin since last fall.

He and his wife, Anita, are in Stockholm, Sweden, finishing up a weeklong, trade-related trip to Europe.

The fire, discovered by security officers about 1:45 a.m., was under control by 6:30 a.m., but there were still hot spots in the building. Flames broke through a portion of the roof about 9:30 a.m. but were quickly extinguished.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was assisting the state Fire Marshal’s office in the investigation. Maldonado indicated security cameras posted around the building were helpful to investigators.

But officials declined to discuss more details, including how an arsonist could have gone undetected by Department of Public Safety troopers assigned to secure the building and its grounds.

Damage to the 152-year-old historic structure is “extraordinary, bordering on catastrophic,” including a partially collapsed roof, said Perry spokesman Robert Black.

Millions of dollars worth of antique furnishings, portraits and other heirlooms had been removed from the mansion and placed in storage before renovation began. But Black said it was impossible to calculate the historic value of the building itself.

He said officials hoped the first floor could be structurally salvaged, but there was more uncertainty about saving the second floor.

Ironically, one of the purposes of the renovation project was to install a sprinkler system in the building, which had none. Before work began, the mansion had a fire alarm system on the first floor but none on the second floor, where the governor and his family lived.

Former Gov. Mark White, who lived in the Mansion from 1983-1986 and took office shortly before a fire heavily damaged the state Capitol, said he was devasted by the latest fire.

“We just must rebuild it,” he said, urging state officials to use the occasion to fully restore the Mansion to its original structure, much as state government did to the Capitol following the 1983 fire.

Security officers staying on the mansion grounds in a carriage house were alerted by a fire alarm triggered by smoke getting into the air conditioning system on the mansion’s first floor, Black said.

The fire quickly spread to the second floor and the ceiling. The problem was compounded by old air shafts and new holes and shafts that had been opened up by workers on the renovation project.

About 100 firefighters responded, and none were injured. At the height of the fire, they were pumping 8,000 gallons of water a minute on the roof from four ladder trucks and other equipment, Austin Fire Department spokesperson Dawn Clopton said.

The Perrys moved out of the mansion last fall into a $9,900 a month rental house to allow for the renovation, a project that was expected to be completed next spring and cost about $10 million.

Among other things, outdated plumbing also is being replaced.

Black said the governor was notified of the fire about 2 a.m. Austin time but planned to conclude his European trip before returning to Austin, as scheduled, on Tuesday.

Perry is scheduled to talk about wind energy at an American Chamber of Commerce event in Stockholm on Monday.

The columns in front of the building were heavily charred, and shrubbery around the building was singed. – chron

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