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Texas probes arson in governor's mansion blaze

Fire investigators are asking for the public’s help in identifying who may be to blame for a blaze that badly damaged the historic Texas Governor’s Mansion.
Burned Governors Mansion
The historic Texas Governor's Mansion was damaged Sunday in Austin after an early morning fire.Harry Cabluck / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fire investigators are asking for the public’s help in identifying who may be to blame for a blaze that badly damaged the historic Texas Governor’s Mansion.

Arson is suspected in the Sunday morning fire that charred the unoccupied 152-year-old building, said state Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado. He wouldn’t provide details on how the fire was set or whether there is a suspect.

“There were some working cameras and surveillance video and all of that is useful to us and that is part of what we are using to help us with this investigation,” Maldonado said.

“We have some evidence that indicates that we do have an intentionally set fire,” Maldonado said. “So we believe that we may be looking at a criminal act here.”

A national response team from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms headed to Austin to assist state and local investigators. And Maldonado asked members of the public to call in with tips on a hot line if they believe they have any useful information.

“We’re going to come get the person that’s responsible for causing this damage,” he said.

National historic landmark
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his wife, Anita, had temporarily moved out of the mansion last year so that a $10 million renovation and maintenance project could take place at the national historic landmark building. The couple is in Europe on an economic development trip but issued a statement Sunday saying they were “heartbroken” by the fire.

“We are grateful to all the firefighters who worked heroically to save this historic landmark and Texas treasure. And like all Texans, we hope that this remarkable building, which has served as the home for our family and other Texas governors for the last 150 years, can be saved and restored,” they said.

Security cameras are set up around the mansion, which sits downtown on a lot the size of a city block, and investigators said they were interviewing people who were nearby and might have noticed suspicious activity.

About 100 firefighters responded when an alarm went off just before 2 a.m. Hours later, with most of the flames extinguished, they continued to battle a few hot spots as puffs of smoke billowed from the building.

No injuries were reported, and there was no immediate financial estimate of the damage.

Damage extensive
State officials said damage to the Greek Revival-style mansion — built in 1856 and first occupied by Gov. Elisha Marshall Pease — was extensive.

The roof buckled because of the fire and the massive amount of water used to extinguish it. The mansion was left black with heavy burns. Parts of the six 29-foot columns at the front of the home and much of the front wall of the mansion were charred black. In some places the original color of the brick could be seen where white paint had burned off.

Perry spokesman Robert Black said much of the wood inside the mansion was longleaf pine that is “completely irreplaceable.” He said some interior ornamentation is damaged beyond repair.

All the historic furnishings and heirlooms had been removed from the mansion for the renovation project. Among the improvement projects were an overhaul of the plumbing, removal of lead paint and asbestos and installation of a fire sprinkler system.

The mansion was equipped with a fire alarm. A state trooper who was on the mansion’s grounds as part of regular security detail heard an alarm go off, then saw flames and called the fire department, said Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Officials would not comment on how many security officers were present when the fire erupted. They said there is no evidence any direct threat to the governor was intended.

The Texas Governor’s Mansion is the oldest continually used executive residence west of the Mississippi, according to the group Friends of the Governor’s Mansion, which works to preserve and show the public the historic building.