Burns A Railroad Bridge
N. Ray Maxie
burning of the Railroad Bridge was an arson case. It happened during
the summer months of the mid 1970"s in southwest Houston. It was a
relatively easy case to solve and involved a group of bored teenagers.
They had nowhere else to go, nothing to constructively occupy their
time and very little adult supervision. This is an all too common
problem that many of our youth face today.
For many, many years railroads have used heavy creosote treated timbers
to construct their bridges. Timber was always abundant and a relatively
cheap source of bridge material. And the good treated timbers have
a very long lifespan. The biggest problem; creosote can catch fire
real easy and cause the timbers to burn rather quickly. So, maintaining
a "safety zone" around the railroad bridges was of utmost importantance.
A safety zone consists of the annual spraying to kill all vegetation
around and near the bridge. This assures that a spreading forest fire
won't easily burn up close to the bridge and catch it on fire. It
consists of keeping all debris, trash and driftwood from collecting
under the bridge. Such a collection under a bridge can be easily and
quickly incinerated, igniting the bridge timbers. As a result of these
risk, many railroads have in recent years, gone to using steel and
concrete exclusively in rebuilt bridges and new construction.
Working for the railroads in Houston at the time, I was assigned to
the 4 to12 evening shift. Upon reporting for duty that particular
day, I was advised a secondary bridge had burned earlier that morning.
It had by this time been extinguished and was well cooled down. Everyone
thus far involved in the investigation suspected arson. My supervisor
handed me the case.
Within the hour I arrived at the burned bridge. All was silent and
no one else was around. Pulling on my rubber boots, I began a detailed
search to see if I could determine the cause of the fire. I sloshed
through the rubble, kicking bits of charred wood about and shoveling
through piles of debris looking for clues; any shred of clues. With
the water pressure, spraying and force caused by the fireman's hoses,
everything was well scattered and entirely soaked. Many very valuable
and tangible clues had likely been destroyed.
After a couple of hours of searching, I backed away some to get a
larger, overall view. As I stepped over a pile of burned rubble, I
noticed the end of a burned magazine spine sticking up in view. Pulling
on the remains of a wet magazine, more of it began to appear. Many
outer pages and part of the heavy binding was burned away. The thick
spine of the magazine remained intact along with the innermost pages.
It was, or had been a "Playboy Magazine" and the remaining pages gave
evidence of being very fresh and a recent edition. I placed it over
out of the way on some timbers for it to dry some and, for a while,
I continued my search. I found no evidence of a molotov-cocktail;
no match stems; no used matchbook; no torch remnants and no indication
of a petroleum based ignition source.
Soon it was break time. Time for some refreshments and reflection.
I put the burned magazine in a plastic bag and took it to my car,
which was parked about a block away, but still within view of the
burned bridge. I had my lunch and a drink in the car, where I sat
for a while watching in the direction of the bridge. After a while,
it must have been about 7 to 7:30 that summer evening, four young
boys came walking up the railroad track from a nearby housing project.
They came to the burned bridge. There was no one else around. They
slid down the embankment near the base of the charred bridge. They
milled around a while looking at the damage and talking. So I hurriedly
returned to the bridge to see what their business was there. They
could be suspects.
While talking at length to all four of these teenaged boys, both collectively
and separately, I began to decipher some events that led to the bridge
burning. Apparently none of them recognized me as an investigator
with my rubber boots on and a shovel thrown over my shoulder. Thus
they stayed around to talk. They revealed under questioning, that
early in the morning, they had walked up the railroad track from their
housing project to a nearby K-Mart store. While there buying snacks,
they purchased a "Playboy Magazine". Returning down the tracks toward
home, they came to the Railroad Bridge, a good secret place to open
their magazine. They decided to go under the bridge and seriously
read for a while. Sometime later, needing to continue on home, they
knew that they had better not take that magazine home with them, fearing
serious parental reprisal. The oldest boy had a cigarette lighter
in his pocket. Using the lighter, he set the magazine on fire and
he tossed it into a pile of debris lodged under the bridge near a
bridge piling timber. They all scrambled back up the embankment and
continued down the track to their homes. It is very unlikely the bridge
would have caught fire if that collection of debris hadn't been lodged
Later that afternoon, these boys received word that there had been
a lot of smoke and the bridge had burned. So, that evening, they wanted
badly to return to the scene and see the damage they had caused. They
did and as we talked a while there at the bridge, I got each of their
names, ages and their address, the school they attended and their
parent or guardian's name. They weren't immediately arrested and I
sent them on their way home. Soon thereafter, I reported my information
to the Houston Police Department, giving them all my findings and
a fully detailed offense report. Next day they took all four boys
into custody and processed them through their juvenile department,
referring charges to the juvenile judge.
N. Ray Maxie
June 15, 2005