Sentinel vehicle destroyed in fire, cause unknown

MARFA — Early Monday morning, the car long used by The Big Bend Sentinel to transport newspapers burst into flames outside the Sentinel office, leaving little more than a burned-out shell, with no immediately discernible cause.

Marfa Fire Chief Gary Mitschke called the fire a “mystery” — at the time of the incident, the car had been sitting unused for days.

“It is odd,” he said. “It had been sitting there — it’s not like the engine was hot. It was cold.”

Mitschke surmised the blaze started in the front seat area of the vehicle, since that would have been the location of possible heat sources, but said there was too much damage to the vehicle to tell much else.

“You have to have a heat source to get a fire started, and the only thing we were aware of in there was the battery and electrical — beyond that, there was no way to tell,” he said. “There’s too much damage there.”

Sentinel employee Maria Gerardo, who used the 2011 Mercury Mariner each week to retrieve newspapers from a printing press in Monahans, said she arrived at the office shortly before 7 a.m. on Monday morning and parked behind the vehicle — immediately, she smelled smoke. But it was a foggy morning, she said, and she didn’t see anything burning.

A few minutes later, Sentinel employee Jessica Mercado went to retrieve towels from the front seat of the Mariner and found smoke billowing out of the car’s cabin — she ran back into the building to alert her coworkers. Gerardo said the smoke seemed to be coming from behind the car’s passenger seat. There was cardboard in the car, she said, which could have helped the fire spread in the car’s interior.

Mercado tried to subdue the flames with a fire extinguisher, but was unsuccessful. That’s when Gerardo told her to step back and wait for help — she had already called 911. The fire department arrived about 10 minutes later, at 7:15 a.m., to put out the fire.

The car had last been driven the previous Thursday, said Gerardo. “Since then, it hadn’t moved at all,” she said.

“It was scary,” added Gerardo. “Afterwards I was thinking, what if that had happened with us driving it?”

Mitschke said that unless more information emerges, the cause of the fire will remain unknown. 

“It is kind of a mystery,” he said. “Maybe we learn more down the road.”