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  Texas : Features : Columns : N. Ray Maxie :

"Playboy" Burns A Railroad Bridge

by N. Ray Maxie
N. Ray Maxie
The 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 there.

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
piddlinacres@consolidated.net
"Ramblin' Ray"
June 15, 2005
 
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