Over the years of research into the history of Old Tucson, I have heard many theories about the fire at Old Tucson. I won’t go into each theory, but will say that the speculation has really run the whole spectrum. So I decided to go right to the main source of correct information about the fire. I sat down with James Pratt, one of the main arson investigators from the Pima County Sheriff’s Dept who investigated this fire. Jim is now retired from the Sheirff’s Dept and works as an inspector and investigator for the Northwest Fire District here in Tucson. This is a synopsis of the information he gave me.
The fire originated inside building 74 which was a sign shop. This building backed up to an entertainment venue and was located on Kansas Street across from the sound stage. A show had just finished at this venue and the crowd was heading south on Front St, being escorted by the actors from the show. With in minutes, flames were discovered inside the building and security radioed the front gate. The front gate called 911. In the mean time, someone putled a fire hose from just north of this location (located outside the Rio Bravo Jail bldg). When it was found that this hose was not long enough, it was dropped and another hose was pulled from the area of Chinese Alley. However the original hose was not turned off and bled off the pressure to the second hose. Tucson Estates Fire Department arrived in less than 10 minutes with one truck and two firemen. However by this time the fire had made too much progress to be suppressed by this equipment. A call was put out to dispatch as many fire units as could be notified. This began the deployment of 100 pieces of fire epuipment and over 200 firefighters from every fire department in the Tucson area, including a crash truck from Davis Monthan,.Det Pratt was dispatched at this time as a hazardous material call. He met up with Rick Evans, incident commander from the Tucson Fire Department. By this point, the wind was out of the west, pushing the fire into the sound stage and west along Kansas Street. Approaches to the fire were restricted by three propane tanks which had vented and were burning. The fire quickly turned into a firestorm with vorticees of flame carrying burning shingles and wood throughout the park. After hours of firefighting, the flames were extinguished and hot spots located and put out. The loss included all of Kansas Street and Front street to the wash on the east side and the corner store on the west. The Mission area was destroyed along with the Mission, the Greer Garson house, and the cantina from Rio Lobo. The south end of town and the Silverlake area were not affected. Fortunatly, there were no human or animal casualties.
Now with the fire out, it was time to investigate the cause…… This will be discussed in the next installment.
Old Tucson Fire part II
So with the fire finally out and the scene cooling, it was time to begin investigating the point of origin and cause of the fire. Using eye witness information the location of the fire was narrowed down to the sign shop on Kansas street, just north of the sound stage. This building was used for the staging of a gunfight show and when not attended, the building could be entered by anyone. The remains of the building showed that the exact location of the point of origin was in a trash can located in the building. With the location now known, what caused the fire? Sample of items in the trash can and area in the immediate area were collected and tested for the presence of accelerant. The tests were negative for any foreign sustance which could have been used as an accelerent.
There was no electrical lines or other sources of ignition in the immediate area. Also, based on the timeline from end of the show and the first flames being seen on the outside of the building, too short a span of time passed to have the been caused by a discarded cigarette. It was ruled that some person unknown had started the fire in the immediate area of the waste basket and that the person had intentionally set the fire with some source of open flame (such as a match).
Now that the source and origin was known, it was time to figure out who had the motive and opportunity to set the fire. Of course, the first suspects in the case would be employees and management. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms sent in a team of forensic accountants to look into a financial motive. It was determined that the owners and management did not stand to get a financial benefit, but would lose a considerable amount of money due to the fire. These facts ruled the owners of Old Tucson out of any conspiracy to start the fire. Next, the employees were questioned and their backgrounds looked into. Nothing of any suspicious nature was found to implicate any employee in the fire. That left the motive as either revenge for some offense or an amateur thrill arsonist. Because of where the fire started, it was felt that the person starting must have some knowledge of the layout of Old Tucson. This basically ruled out some random out of town person. Employment records were checked and one individual was identified as having attempted to get a job at Old Tucson and did not get the job. This person became the primary suspect. The subject lived in the area and frequented Old Tucson. In the following month, several fires were started in the area of Tucson Estates, down the road from Old Tucson and this subject was identified as the primary suspect in those fires. He was questioned and faced with evidence from the Tucson Estates fires and confessed to having started those fires. However, before he could be questioned about the Old
Tucson fire, he involked his Miranda Rights, effectivelly stopping any further questioning. Not enough evidence could be collected to positively identify this suspect as the arsonist in the Old Tucson fire. His name will not be mentioned here due to that fact. No other information pointing to any other individual was ever found and the case remains open.
Please contact the author if any different information is known.