AUSTIN, Texas - A video posted by the Austin Fire Department shows how flames scaled to the top of the historic Buford Tower. The fire started around 9 p.m. Thursday night and may have come from inside or around a tent that was set up next to the tower
"It was too fast, it was too hot, too fast," said a man who only wanted to be identified as David and lives near the tower in a homeless encampment.
David recorded video on his phone as fire crews arrived. David agrees with investigators that the cause of the fire is incendiary, but he could only stand by and wait as Investigators spent the day checking security cameras. Additional video could help determine if the fire was a targeted attack or accidental.
When asked if he felt safe staying there now, David said "I don’t know, I just lay down, and as I lay my head down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, that’s it, that’s all I can say."
The fire happened a block away from City Hall. In a zoom briefing Friday morning, Mayor Steve Adler responded to the fire by defending the lifting of the camping ban about two years ago. The tower fire, and another an hour later at a state-operated site in East Austin, according to Adler, justifies that strategy.
"If these same fires happened in the woods, to those people to those people that we may have forced back there, as some are asking, people may well have died. We have to get out of the tents we have to get people out of tents everywhere, we actually need to get them housed and just not hide them," said Mayor Adler.
While the mayor was preparing his statement, another camp fire was burning across the street from City Hall. It caught the attention of Councilmember Mackenzie Kelly.
"But what we are doing now is not right and Mayor Adler is correct there, we need to go one step further, and maybe open up the Palmer Event Center and provide that as shelter, while we address the needs of the individuals on the streets, because these fires can’t keep happening," said Kelly.
Those who want the Austin City Council to reinstate the camping ban, say the fire at the tower comes as no surprise for them. They also point out the fire is not an isolated incident.
"And sadly we predicted this almost 2 years ago when we testified at the Capitol," said Cleo Petricek with Save Austin Now.
The group started getting signatures on a ballot petition as fires started to ignited in camps across Austin. They happened mainly under overpasses and bridges. Petricek disagrees with the mayor’s strategy.
"Because letting them live in filth and squalor is not caring for them and if this is what homeless activists, if this is what the City Council is doing for them, that is not compassionate, it’s immoral and it’s wrong, it’s unAmerican," said Petricek.
The tower was built in 1930 as a training structure and had been dedicated in 1978 in memory of AFD Captain James L. Buford who died in the line of duty in 1972 while trying to rescue a 15-year-old boy in Shoal Creek floodwaters. Both drowned.