Every fifteen minutes of the day a tour begins on the first floor of the Texas Capitol. The guides are mostly fresh-scrubbed college students, young women in identical skirts and blouses and the young men in button-down shirts with conservative striped ties. They begin at the south foyer offering visitors a view of the flags illustrated in the marble floor representing the six countries that have, at one time or another, ruled Texas.
In recent decades after the $288 million renovation of fire-damage and construction of a massive underground extension the tour has become longer and requires the guides to memorize more facts, to answer more questions. The subterranean extension is developing its own story like the main building and will one day be historic in its own right. But it’s the original granite-faced big house completed in 1888 by prison labor and Scottish stonemasons, paid for by a swap of 3,000,000 acres of public land – an area twice the size of the state of Delaware – that remains the soul of Texas.
From the rotunda the guide leads the way to the Senate floor. When the Legislature is not in session, tourists oooh and aaah over the paintings of heroes and ask more questions. Except for the velour ropes and portraits of dead white men the Senate chamber has the feel of an elaborate bordello parlour. The tour leaders were previously warned by the State Preservation Board, responsible for the Capitol’s maintenance, “Do not add material or stories to your tour that are not in your packet. If someone asks you a question that you don’t have information on, tell them to stop by our office after the tour and we will try to answer it." Nowadays a little adlibbing is permitted. Invariably it’s in the back of the mind of any Texan of a certain age that a fire took place here on the Senate side – a very destructive fire, in which someone died. The occasional tourist may even know that the fire led to the renovation of the capital and eventually, in a sense, to the creation of the extension itself. “Wasn’t it something about an apartment?” visitors may ask, referring to the origin of the blaze. It was so long ago that details only buzz vaguely in the back of minds as a sense more than a concrete knowing.
If the visitor asks how the fire started the official story is that a television set shorted out in what was then the lieutenant governor’s apartment behind the Senate floor. Specifically, it was a Zenith TV although that’s not mentioned. The set originally cost $425 and had a “self-extinguishing cabinet,” which isn’t mentioned either, yet it spontaneously melted down and nearly took the soul of Texas with it.
That is the official story.
The “official story” has survived three decades, but in recent years old evidence that was suppressed has come to light – and a key witness spoke a few words before dying. Both contradicted the official explanation. The official story of the Capitol fire now appears to be exactly what it is, a complete fabrication told to protect a very powerful political family – a family that has included a governor and lieutenant governor and once defined the Texas establishment the way the Bushes do now. Actually two people died in the fire. One of the victims of the Capitol fire was a 23-year-old horse trainer from a barn in New Caney, outside Houston, who succumbed to smoke inhalation on February 6, 1983 in a bedroom of the then-lieutenant governor’s then-apartment, behind the Senate chamber. The other was a Capitol policeman who breathed his last breath after a minor car accident in Guanajuato down on Mexico’s central plateau a year later.
Those are the latest two victims of the Texas myth – or, in this case, the Texas lie.
February 5, 1983: The 68th session of the Texas Legislature had just begun and Lt. Gov William P. Hobby was in town, staying at a duplex he shared with his wife a few blocks from the Capitol as was their custom. There were two apartments in the Capitol then, dating from the days when the legislative leadership might come to Austin only for the legislative session, every two years. The Hobbys preferred to use their state quarters (consisting of four bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, a den and four baths) as a guest house for out-of-town visitors. The other apartment is on the second floor on the west side and belongs to the Speaker. Kate Pettus Hobby, a high school senior at St. John’s in Houston, and a couple named Waterman, owners of the stable where Miss Hobby rode, and Mathew Hansen, her riding instructor, were all in town that day for the Texas Riding and Hunting Association banquet at the Driskill Hotel where Miss Hobby was to receive an award. She and her party stayed in the Capitol apartment. A dance followed the awards banquet and Kate Hobby and Matt Hansen left at two in the morning, driven the few blocks from the hotel by an older Hobby sibling, Andrew, who did not stay. In the apartment the Watermans, who were in their mid-30s, were already asleep. Kate Hobby poured a glass of juice for herself and a coke for Hansen, she recalled in a statement, and the two sat eating Fritos on the couch in the den where the fire started. Kate stayed with Matt Hansen a few minutes, she said to investigators the next day, and then went to bed. When last seen alive by Kate Hobby, Matt Hansen – who had been drinking all night – was stretched out on the couch, smoking cigarettes and watching Music TV.
Two hours later Kate and the Watermans were awakened by smoke and noise, according to the official account, as glass and wood cracked in the flames. Heat detectors designed to sound an alarm in the security office on the Capitol’s first floor summoned police. Officer Joel Quintanilla had been on patrol on the grounds outside and was called in, raced upstairs and heard Hansen beating on the walls of the apartment but the smoke was too much to penetrate. Quintanilla was burned on his hands, arms and face, as his lungs filled with soot. The Watermans and Kate Hobby escaped but firemen found the riding instructor, dressed only in pants and socks, lying between the twin beds in a guest room. That’s the official line. “This particular [television] set, we can prove that it was defective and that it caught fire and damaged the Capitol,” Attorney General Jim Mattox said following a legal settlement under which Zenith agreed to pay $600,000 to the Hansen family, $300,000 to Quintanilla’s survivors and $1.3 million to the State of Texas for repairs to the then 95-year-old red granite building.
“We got ninety or ninety-five percent of what we wanted,” Mattox told the public.
From the beginning there were doubts about this account of events related to both the progression of the fire and its cause. First the timing did not make sense. Capitol security officers clocked the smoke detectors’ alarm at 5:25 in the morning and the fire department was alerted at 5:33. Yet every physical indication was that the blaze had begun much earlier with Officer Quintanilla testifying that he had been called in from patrol on a report of smoke at 5 a.m. Acting Chief Brady Pool who led the firefighters that morning was the first to hint that something was not right.
“Anybody who was in the business, any professional,” he said later in an interview, “could tell that the fire had been burning for a while before we got there. It hadn’t just started five minutes before [the alarm] was turned in.” He cited as an example a hot-water heater, normally in position in one of the false ceilings above the den. The first firemen to enter the apartment found the heater on the floor – the whole ceiling had already burned away. Chief Pool first thought the cause was electrical, sparks from a short circuit – the usual house-fire kind of thing—just on a bigger scale. At first the trauma of the fire itself trumped the search for a cause. It was a mind boggling scene that dawn at the north end of Congress Avenue downtown. Mark White, sworn in as governor the month before, walked over from the Mansion and was put to work dragging water hoses. The first firemen to arrive called in a second alarm and a third was turned in almost an hour later. At one point the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, mayor and city manager were all on the scene together with 100 firemen and at the height of the fire Chief Pool informed Governor White that he needed to be prepared to give the order to abandon the building. Almost a century before the first Texas Capitol also burned down – no one could believe it was happening again.
Eventually the flames were “knocked down,” as firemen say, before reaching the Senate chamber. In addition to Mathew Hansen who was already past help when he was dragged by firemen from the apartment, that morning three Capitol police officers and eight firefighters were also injured.
Early that same morning, not long after the first alarm, city fire investigators were already on their way to the scene. As they drove along Festival Beach Road looking north they saw smoke a mile away, rising from the most prominent building in Texas. The State Fire Marshal’s people began arriving too. The city and state investigators had joint jurisdiction – or so they thought. Because of the nature of the damage, the origin of the fire was quickly narrowed down to the den of the lieutenant governor’s apartment. Malcolm Light, the city’s chief arson investigator, focused first on the two likeliest causes. “In this fire, like most where damage is particularly severe,” he wrote in his notes, showing particular literary care in what was likely to be a highly scrutinized investigation, “determination of the exact point of origin is extremely difficult.
“Barring any unexpected event in the investigation, there appear to be only two possibilities regarding fire cause. Either a fault or shorting occurred in an electrical conductor in the vicinity of the northwest corner [of the lieutenant governor’s den] resulting in the fire, or the fire was initiated by a carelessly discarded cigarette or smoking materials.”
In the northwest corner of the den there was a television on a shelf, near bookcases, and an easy chair. “During excavation operations in the room of origin,” Chief Light wrote, “remains of a television were recovered from the northwest quadrant of the room along with remnants of electrical conductors. What appeared to be the operating cord to the television was recovered intact with no evidence of faults or melting.” A piece of unidentified electrical wire was found nearby with blisters indicating a short. A short can cause a fire, sure – but a fire can also cause a short.
Officer Quintanilla was interviewed in Brackenridge Hospital where he was in intensive care. He had joined two other Capitol policemen on the first floor of the east wing that unhappy morning when he came in from patrol and from the hospital bed he told Chief Light, “The three of us ran to the elevator. As soon as we got off the elevator, we looked down and we could see smoke coming from the door leading to the den.” They entered the apartment, and down the hall Quintanilla could hear someone shouting, “Help me, get me out.” Quintanilla moved toward the den where the door was still closed. Seen from another perspective, one of the other officers explained how Joel Quintanilla made a fatal mistake. “Officer Spinks told [Officer Quintanilla] that the fire and smoke were too bad and for him not to open the door; however, at that minute, Quintanilla kicked the door and the door exploded open onto Officer Quintanilla. The hallway was immediately filled with smoke and fire, all the lights went out and we were unable to see anything.”
In that half-second view inside the den, which he would eventually pay for with his life, Joel Quintanilla said he saw fire to the left ("Fire, man," he said specifically in his formal interview about what he saw, "and lots of smoke") in the northwest corner near the television, and also straight ahead, to the east, on the sofa.
Subsequent examination would determine odd burn patterns on the sofa itself.
In a house in North Austin an old man sat two decades later with his wife and reminisced. This former public official held two major positions in his life, both related to the detection and prevention of fire. For the last fifteen years of his professional career Ernest Emerson was Fire Marshal of Texas.
On the morning of February 9, three days after the Capitol fire, Marshal Emerson was on a “walk-through” of the ruins of the east end of the building with other state officials, including Attorney General Jim Mattox. The cleanup already begun and investigators from the city and Emerson’s office were trying to determine a cause. As the tour ended Mattox asked the fire marshal to stay for a moment. “I accompanied Mr. Mattox and his group on the tour and remained behind, at Mr. Mattox’s request,” Emerson included in his notes written at the time, which can be found in state archives, “for a short discussion concerning the matter of overlapping jurisdiction and the need to coordinate investigative efforts.”
“He told me,” Emerson recalled two decades later, at home in his Austin living room, “that he was taking over the investigation of the fire.”
Chief Emerson knew Attorney General Mattox from Dallas. Before coming to the capital five years earlier Ernest Emerson had ended a 31-year career in the Big D – rising from fire fighter to chief arson investigator to fire marshal. Mattox had been there too as an assistant district attorney before winning a seat in Congress.
Did Marshal Emerson object to General Mattox taking over the investigation? “He was the attorney general,” Emerson said years later at home. He showed discomfort, as investigators do when confronted with interference by powerful interests. Of what happened later, Emerson added, “I believe he [Mattox] was trying to protect some people.”
When Jim Mattox took over the Capitol case he hired an outside consultant to solve it. General Mattox had in effect removed both the city and state fire marshals from the case, yet the attorney general is not in the fire-detection business and therefore needed expertise. Mattox named a private consultant to head the investigation, a man named Leland Priest who had preceded Malcolm Light as the City of Austin’s fire marshal. While not satisfied with the attorney general assuming authority for the investigation, State Fire Marshal Emerson was reassured because he knew Priest on a professional level and knew “he was a good man.” A few days later Ernest Emerson got a call from Leland Priest, who had discouraging news. Although never made public at the time, a “confidential supplemental report” can be found in the state fire marshal’s records in the William P. Hobby State Office Building reflecting that the Capitol fire had taken a dangerous turn.
The report is one paragraph written by Emerson and dated February 18, 12 days after the statehouse had almost burned down: “I met with Leland M. Priest, who had been retained by the Attorney General as a fire cause consultant. He said that he had been dismissed by the Attorney General on Tuesday, February 15th. He said that he had in his possession fire debris samples taken Friday, February 11th, from the den (fire scene) at the Capitol. He said the sample of carpet taken from the northwest corner of the den near the TV was hot.”
“Hot,” Emerson explained in his home during the later interview, “is what investigators say for evidence pointing to the cause of a fire.” Without referring to his notes, the 80-year-old Emerson recalled certain circumstances of what was happening among the ashes of the East Wing. The attorney general had fired Priest, a strategic decision, but doing so made a tactical error – he had not recovered the evidence Priest had collected in the Capitol apartment. Specifically Leland Priest had discovered suspicious burn patterns in the carpet of the room. “Priest called me and said Mattox had let him go. He said Mattox wanted the cause of the fire to be one thing and not another,” Emerson recalled twenty years after the fact.
“Priest said he trusted me and he would only turn over the evidence to me, and only with a subpoena. I drew up a subpoena and went to see him.”
Without telling anyone – and even though he had been taken off the fire cause investigation – Ernest Emerson collected the evidence and assigned one of his men to drive to the Metroplex, to the private Armstrong Forensic Laboratory outside Dallas.
“The purpose of this trip was to deliver and submit five (5) fire debris samples for complete laboratory testing and analysis,” Emerson’s man, who made the trip north, wrote in his own “confidential supplemental report,” dated Feb. 22. “These five debris samples were those recovered from the fire scene by Leland M. Priest, Fire Cause Consultant. …”
“It was requested of Dr. Armstrong that all testing and analysis of the debris samples be aimed at determining any presence of flammable hydrocarbon or other substances in the samples, and, if possible, to identify such substances.” The firemen had already guessed what they were looking for. Among the ruins of the den were unidentified fragments of green glass, as well as a small silver or silver-looking instrument, found melted beyond recognition. Three years earlier comedian Richard Pryor had put “freebasing” in the dictionary after he burned himself while preparing a potent form of cocaine for smoking. Today’s fashion in cocaine is crack but at that time freebasing – essentially home-cooking your own crack – was the thang to do.
To freebase requires “washing” cocaine in a strong solvent, a hydrocarbon like ether, to remove impurities and prepare the drug which is then placed in a pipe. Freebased coke is almost instantaneously absorbed by the lungs. The narcotic effect is fast, ecstatic and short-lived. The preparation, mixing hydrocarbons with fire, is also very dangerous as Pryor discovered to his horror and, later, bitter humor.
The suspicion among firemen was that someone had learned the same lesson in the Capitol.
While he waited for the results of the lab tests, Marshal Emerson kept busy. His official duty assigned by General Mattox was to investigate any possibility that the building had been intentionally torched which no one believed from the beginning but which was presumably intended to keep the fire marshal’s men occupied. In practice it meant talking to a lot of crazies.
Emerson said that, surreptitiously, “I still had people looking at things.”
One avenue of inquiry was to see if the party at the Driskill Hotel had carried over into the Capitol. To find out if the awards banquet spread beyond the ballroom one of Emerson’s men spent a week trying to track down a musician named Mark Stuart, leader of “Dash Rip Rock and the Dragons,” the band that had played Top 40 for the equestrian crowd that night.
Emerson’s agent finally contacted Mr. Stuart by phone at his home in Dallas. The results were disappointing – slightly comical – but remain part of the record in the fire marshal’s “report.” “Mr. Stuart stated that he had talked further with all members of his band about remarks they may have heard at the dance on this particular night, and none of them remembered any comments or remarks about anyone going to another party or a meeting of any kind at any other location. He stated that after a period of time playing in a band, most musicians don’t pay much attention to talk or actions in the attending crowd unless something out of the ordinary occurs.” Emerson’s investigator had just been introduced to after-hours life in the Live Music Capital of the World. Dash Rip Rock and the Dragons were crossed off the list.
In the meantime, the results had come back from the lab.
Leland Priest was right.
The carpeting from the den was hot.
The fourth sample, debris taken in front of the bookcase, “had a strong odor of aromatic components,” the chemist Dr. Armstrong reported. To chemists, “aromatic” does not mean a good smell like perfume – but rather that the source is petroleum-based and volatile, meaning it catches fire. Further testing identified the remains in the carpet as a methyl-ether compound with “strong solvent capabilities.” Because solvents necessary for freebasing can be created from household products the fire marshal’s office quietly contacted the Capitol police, to determine if any supplies of the same ingredients might have been stored in the apartment den. The answer, recorded in another “confidential supplemental report” was that “No materials of this kind were kept or stored in the den at any time.”
Marshal Emerson said he talked with Armstrong by phone, to confirm his findings.
“It was our belief that,” the marshal said, those years later, of events leading to Texas’ big burn, “they were freebasing.” By “they” Emerson said he means a person or persons unknown, but presumably Matt Hansen and perhaps someone else as well. The lab report was ordered sent to Attorney General Mattox. When it became clear what Emerson had done – ordering tests without permission of the AG – Emerson said that he incurred the displeasure of certain high-ranking state officials. As to why no cocaine was found if freebasing had been taking place, former Fire Marshal Emerson suggested an obvious possibility: “That room was pretty well burned-up.” Any cocaine could have been destroyed, just as in a pipe. The attorney general, meanwhile, as part of his investigation, had decided to consult that National Aeronautics and Space Administration on the origins of the fire – for reasons that to this day remain unclear. NASA has wonderful scientists but they aren’t known for their fire forensics work. It looked good. NASA. Oh wow. In the end the state of Texas sued Zenith Radio Corp. and Mattox said he had found evidence of other fires in similar products. Mattoon's trump card was that the state was prepared to introduce the testimony of Lt. Governor Hobby’s servant, responsible for care of the apartment, who would testify that on a previous occasion the TV had blacked out and made a “popping’ noise. During the civil suit which never went to court Zenith’ lawyers (Fulbright & Jaworski) tried to get their hands on Emerson’s notes, a collection which came to be known popularly as “the state fire marshal’s report” – although the “report” really is a series of memoranda written by Emerson and his men for their files in the days following the fire, as the search for a cause developed into intrigue. Once a much sought-after document, never made public until now, these famous slips of paper can actually be viewed in the state archives.
Tipped to the fire marshal’s covert activities Zenith’s lawyers asked for Emerson’s papers at the time. The request was refused by the state’s lawyer, Jim Mattox. The appeals court refused to force the document's release. Zenith’s lawyers said privately that even had they won in court the case would be a public relations nightmare for the company. A frustrated lawyer for Fulbright & Jaworski noted privately, after the settlement had been reached, “One question you need to look at is, did the television set the fire, or did it burn up in the fire?”
A year later Officer Quintanilla remained on complete disability. He was seeing the old homestead in Mexico when he was involved in a minor traffic accident in Guanajuato. While hospitalized his lungs failed. He received a posthumous Carnegie Medal in recognition of his heroism that morning. Leland Priest, who broke the case, died in a freak accident a few years later.
Ernest Emerson who died the year after he gave his final interview was the last real witness – not to the fire but to the investigation. Emerson spent 12 years of his later life on the national board that sets fire-code standards, he said that the men who maintained the integrity of the investigation are not the heroes of this fire or any blaze – but the firefighters themselves who on the morning of February 6, “knocked down” the flames before they reached the Senate chamber. It would be dramatic to say that the Capitol fire haunted Chief Emerson through the decades until he spoke out but that’s simply not true. The fire that haunted him took place almost thirty years before that – the Golden Pheasant restaurant in Dallas. It was seven alarms and the legend is that every firefighter in Dallas worked that night. Four died. At least, Chief Emerson said, he got the Capitol blaze down on paper and out of his head.
As the reconstruction of the east wing of the Capitol was underway the Senate led by Bill Hobby chose to turn the lieutenant governor’s apartment into offices and a lounge for lawmakers. You like to think this was a way of making up for what happened, a kind of noblesse oblige in reverse, doing the right thing to make up for a wrong. You can also believe that the fire did some good. All those false ceilings and dead spaces created through a century of makeshift engineering and quick fixes—after the Scottish masons and prison cons finished work—were removed. The entire Capitol is now fitted with a sprinkler system. Looking back what’s intriguing about the Capitol fire is that the official story was almost contradicted from the very beginning. When Joel Quintanilla first opened his eyes after kicking in the door of the den he was in the lobby-floor Capitol security office having been carried down by his comrades and the first person he saw was Kate Hobby seated across from him with a policeman’s raincoat over her shoulders. What really happened in the apartment might have been discovered then and there if investigators sat down with her, an official lamented long after the fact. Miss Hobby was allowed to leave and gave a brief statement hours later at her father’s townhouse, a few blocks away, signing her name the girlish “Katie,” which she’s still called by some today. She would later testify in a deposition, “There were no drugs or anything in my presence at any time,” Kate Hobby now leads a presumably quiet life doing good deeds in Houston, married to a man who was a pallbearer at the funeral of her grandmother Oveta, the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. “It is a complete fabrication,” she said once of any idea that drug use led to the fire. And, as her patrician backbone rose she added, “You will hear from my lawyer.” She didn’t reveal if she still rides. Only days after the embers had cooled people were already whispering that something wasn’t right about the story that high officials of the Democratic Party were trying to feed the public. Some of the rumors could be attributed to Richard Pryor’s sensationally unhappy experience – the sort of innuendo you might have heard after any suspicious blaze at the time. But in the case of this tragedy, some of the rumbling could be traced to investigators themselves who thought the fix was in. Even the initial excavation of the fire scene had suggested that someone was not telling the truth. The apartment’s “panic button” installed to enable the lieutenant governor to alert security in case of an emergency was found in the “on” position. Someone had tried to summon help. The switch was known to be properly functioning because it had, by coincidence, been inspected the night before the fire. The officer who checked wrote in his log that the apartment was strewn with beer cans.
In the mind’s eye you can almost see Kate Hobby, young, horsey, rich, with a powerful father and a place to crash in Austin for an early spring break. Kate, like her matriarch grandmother – owner of the Houston Post, Oveta Hobby – and the Hobby men, mostly named William or Bill, who mostly went into politics, part of a family that meant a great deal in this state. The Hobbys have rendered considerable service to Texas—although they’ve also tended to run a little wild, especially in their last generations in power. It’s unlikely that the Watermans or Matt Hansen, first-time visitors to the apartment would have known of the panic button’s existence. The Watermans were described by rescuers in documentation as half-asleep and dazed when pulled from their rooms. Kate Hobby would have known though.
She said she was in her bedroom the whole time and was only awakened by the arrival of the officers. She came out the door into their arms. That’s what she’s always said. That's part of the official story too.
A few hours after the last flames were extinguished, a search began of the bedroom where Mathew Hansen’s body was found. “This investigator noted that a leather jacket was located on the foot of the west twin bed,” an officer of the fire marshal’s office wrote in his report that morning as he surveyed the ash and ruin. “This leather jacket appeared to be the size of one that belonged to a male subject. A maroon and white athletic type jacket was found on the middle portion of the east twin bed. This was a small jacket which appeared to possibly be one belonging to a female.
“Several other articles of clothing were found on the floor next to the victim and upon the east twin bed. All of this clothing appeared to be of male design with the exception of one shirt. This light blue and white shirt actually appeared to be a blouse.” A search of the bathroom found a toothbrush, a “Lady Shick” razor and a tube of muscle ointment. The ashtray on the vanity between the beds contained two cigarette butts of different brands.
The victim’s travel bag held “a small ‘shot glass’ type container containing a clear liquid. The container was clear in color with the opening covered by ‘masking’ tape.” Attorney General Mattox’s office would later describe the contents of the shot glass as “horse liniment.” Burn patterns on the bedroom door indicated the door had been closed after the fire began. That meant Hansen was probably not in the bedroom at the time the blaze started, and may have taken refuge there. “This investigator noted a very unusual circumstance within the bedroom,” the officer recorded that morning in the bedroom. “Neither of the twin beds had been slept in. All of the linens and bedspreads were still in a ‘made-up’ position.
“Additionally, the general appearance of the bedspreads indicated that neither bed had been laid upon prior to the fire. Considering the time frame involved, this investigator considered this circumstance very unusual.”