June 13, 2014

Fiery cliffhanger draws crowd to lake

Several hundred curiosity seekers took to fishing boats to get a front row seat Friday as officials set fire to a house dangling treacherously over a 75-foot cliff.

Horrified by what they were about to see but unable to turn away and miss the moment, Robert and Cheryl Johnson of Granbury dusted off their old fishing boat at dawn Friday and towed it to Lake Whitney.

There, something truly unusual and possibly historic was about to happen.

A 4,000-square-foot mansion, built just six years ago on a 75-foot-high cliff overlooking Lake Whitney, was about to go up in flames. The house, which had been evacuated by its owners two weeks ago, was sticking out over a ledge after a large wall of the cliff eroded beneath it.

The homeowner, along with authorities, determined that the quickest and safest way to get the house off the cliff was to burn it down, with firefighters standing by to oversee the demolition.

The Johnsons were among hundreds of people who flocked to watch the $700,000 luxury home built in 2007 go up in flames and then fall into Lake Whitney, which is about 60 miles south of Fort Worth.

“I hate to see this happen,” said Robert Johnson, a former drywall installer who now manages rental properties for a living. “I love houses.”

But the Johnsons also explained that they love a good news story. In recent years, they had visited Jarrell as well as Oklahoma City after devastating tornadoes, and they also once traveled to the Parker County town of Cool to witness American Idol television contestant Casey James make a homecoming appearance.

On Friday morning, the Johnsons pushed off their red fiberglass fishing boat at a Steele Creek Park boat launch on the western side of Lake Whitney, about a mile across the lake from the doomed mansion.

With the tiny outboard motor rumbling, the watercraft moved along at perhaps 10 mph, arriving at a spot just a few hundred yards from the shoreline below the mansion nearly an hour before the scheduled 10 a.m. controlled-burn time. They dropped anchor in about eight feet of water, and Cheryl Johnson opened a bag of Oreos for a snack.

But the fire wasn’t set on schedule because it took workers nearly two hours to prepare the home.

Away from the Johnsons’ view, two men were placed in a mechanical bucket at the end of a small crane and lifted into the garage. It appeared they were smashing holes into the side of the walls and ceiling. Red gas cans could be seen being brought in and out of the garage.

The bucket then went to front of the house, where a worker used a hammer to poke holes into the windows and stonework. Chunks of stone could be seen falling to the ground.

Then, they poured gasoline into the house through the open window and through the cracks in the house. The last step before starting the fire was placing hay bales inside the garage.

About 11:45 a.m., workers tossed flares into the home, and soon a light trail of smoke appeared from the front of the house opposite the water.

A potentially dangerous wake

Boaters in the water were ordered by a patrolling game warden to move back to about 2,000 feet off shore, saying the fire wouldn’t be lit until all boats were at a safer distance — presumably in case chunks of the house were to fall into the water, causing a potentially dangerous wave.

Robert Johnson said he didn’t mind the two-hour delay, even though the sun had come out and turned a cool and overcast morning into a hot, sticky experience on the unsheltered water.

“I’d just be sitting at home watching Dr. Phil,” he said.

Cheryl Johnson added, “Yeah, with the air conditioner on.”

By noon, the house’s second floor was engulfed in flames. At one point, Cheryl Johnson, who sat at the bow holding an umbrella, gasped as a large chunk of the back patio and second-story outer wall of the home, crashed down the cliff side in a fiery ball.

The crackling of the fire could be heard only occasionally over the constant fluttering of news helicopters hovering over the lake.

Some of the charred debris from the home was also floating in shallow water. But overall, it appeared that the controlled fire did its job — minimizing the amount of debris that fell into the water. It took less than an hour for the fire to level the home.

A trying time

The house had been in danger of falling into the lake, which is fed by the Brazos River, for a couple of months. It was condemned and evacuated about two weeks ago.

The homeowner, Rob Webb, told WFAA he had difficulty recognizing the house on news reports.

“And then you’re like, ‘Good grief, that is my home?’ ” Webb said. “Yeah, it’s a trying time, certainly.”

Webb told WFAA that the house was inspected before he and his wife bought it. He said they just learned that their homeowners insurance doesn’t cover earth movement.

His retirement savings were spent on the house, he said. And Webb said he’s paying for demolition.

For the Johnsons, who have two grown daughters and four grandchildren, the demolition of the cliff house was a time to meet new people, chat with other boaters and enjoy the fresh air. But it was also a time to sympathize with the home owner.

“I heard he’s invested everything he has in this house, and now he’s losing it all,” Robert Johnson lamented, as he watched the flames lick the stone outer walls of the house, and melt its dark shingled roof.

Staff Writer Bill Hanna contributed to this report.

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