Editor's note: This story was originally published Oct. 19, 2012. We are bringing it back because today marks the five-year anniversary of Big Tex burning.
Big Tex, the beloved 52-foot-tall cowboy who's watched over the State Fair of Texas for decades, caught on fire Friday morning and was quickly burnt to a crisp.
He was 60.
Big Tex is toast. The tallest talking Texan will no longer say "Hoooowwwdeee, fooolllllks!" at this year's fair, which ends Sunday. But State Fair officials say the icon will be rebuilt in time for next year.
Hundreds gathered in Big Tex Circle to watch the big guy go up in flames. Many stood in tears. Others snapped pictures with their smartphones, spreading the news online as quickly as the fire spread up Big Tex. They reminisced about the good-lookin' folksy fair mascot who first arrived at Fair Park in 1952.
No one was injured.
State Fair officials say the fire was caused by an electrical short that started in his right boot. Flames and smoke shot up his body, which acted as a chimney, said Sue Gooding, a State Fair spokeswoman.
Gooding happened to walk by Big Tex when the fire started around 10:15 a.m. She spotted white smoke emerging from his collar.
"I didn't know Big Tex smoked," a fairgoer was overheard saying.
He doesn't. Firefighters were sent to Fair Park by an unusual report from a Dallas Fire-Rescue dispatcher over the radio: "Got a rather tall cowboy with all his clothes burned off."
"Big Tex was done in about 10 minutes," said Allen Ferrell, who was visiting the fair with a church group from North Richland Hills.
The fire consumed Big Tex's 75-gallon hat. It ate off his fiberglass face, which once flashed perfectly straight teeth. It burned through his boots, his five-pocket denim jeans and his 23-foot-long belt.
All that remained were his charred three-ton steel skeleton and his hands, sleeves, belt buckle and bits of burnt clothing.
Late Friday morning, fairgoers and fair workers, some of whom have worked at the fair for decades, stared up at the frame, swapping stories and sharing memories.
For decades, parents told their kids that if they were lost to "meet up at Big Tex." For generations, families have snapped pictures in front of Big Tex.
Christi Erpillo's family has operated the Dock restaurant at the fair since the '60s. When she heard that Big Tex was on fire, she raced over to Big Tex Circle. When she saw him in flames, she started to cry.
"We have lost a friend," Erpillo said. "We've lost a member of the family. ... He is one of us. We've lost our leader."
Shortly before noon Friday, Bill Bragg, the voice of Big Tex since 2002, picked up his cellphone and said in a drained voice: "This is Big Tex."
The voice of Big Tex is never recorded, so Bragg works 12-hour days in a trailer near Big Tex, alternating between 30 minutes of announcements and 30-minute breaks.
On Friday morning, Bragg was announcing, reading from a script, not paying attention to Big Tex. Then he looked up and saw the flames. He turned off the audio equipment and left the trailer.
"I could not believe my eyes," Bragg said. "It was sadness and shock. We were all just hoping that it would be a bad dream and we'd wake up and everything would be OK."
Tears rolled down his cheeks as he watched Big Tex burn.
"He went down talking," Bragg said.
Bragg tried to find a bright side. "It's a new beginning," he said. "Because we're going to build him back bigger and better than ever."
Fair officials said that Big Tex will be back in time for the 2013 fair, a sentiment echoed by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who rushed to the fairgrounds after he heard about the fire to "pay my respects to Big Tex."
Before Big Tex was Big Tex, he was Santa Claus, born in 1949 in the town of Kerens in Navarro County. The town created the world's largest Santa Claus to help draw Christmas shoppers.
In 1951, the State Fair bought the Santa from Kerens for $750 and used the framework to transform him into who he is today. In 1952, he was unveiled to the fair crowds.
Like certain older Texans, he's undergone countless nips and tucks through the years. In 1997, his innards were replaced with a steel frame.
But he had always maintained his rugged good looks. Until Friday.
Soon after the fire, barricades were placed around Big Tex Circle, preventing fairgoers from getting too close. Police officers stood guard. Many in the crowd said it looked and felt like a crime scene.
A crane arrived and lowered Big Tex to the ground around lunchtime. His charred remains were placed on flatbed trucks. A huge piece of canvas was placed over him.
There were a few tears -- and plenty of camera phones to capture the scene.
"I'm getting all of this," one woman said. Her eyes were wet. "It's like he's in a body bag."
As Big Tex rolled by, fairgoers clapped. Some waved goodbye to the beloved cowboy.
Around 1:15 p.m., the barricades were taken down and fairgoers flooded Big Tex Circle. A bouquet of red carnations and baby's breath was placed at the base of Big Tex.
Many fairgoers took pictures of their family members in front of where Big Tex used to stand.
When Anna Hall of Midlothian was a girl, her mother, Lisa Fordinal, took her picture at Big Tex. On Friday afternoon, Fordinal took pictures of Hall with her 10-month-old son, Eli.
This was Eli's first fair. Big Tex may not be around, but that wasn't going to stop the family from their photo tradition.
"It's empty," Hall said. "When you've come here your whole life, and he's gone, the fair is missing something."
Big Tex may be gone for now, but life went on at the fair. In Big Tex Circle, fairgoers lined up for corny dogs. Not too far away, people ate curly fries and onion rings. In front of the Hall of State, boys and girls dressed in cowboy hats and boots danced to country music.
And just steps from where the burned hulk of Big Tex used to be, fairgoers gawked at brand-new cars at the Auto Show.
During a car presentation, a fitting song blared:
"Happy trails to you, until we meet again ..."
Staff writer Christina Rosales contributed to this report.
Big Tex: A timeline
1949: Erected as a 52-foot-tall Santa Claus on Nov. 10 in Kerens to bolster the town's Christmas shopping.
1950: Transported 60 miles to Dallas and sold to the State Fair of Texas for $750.
1952: Transformed and unveiled as a giant cowboy named Big Tex (above), debuting in late October as the official symbol of the State Fair of Texas.
1953: Speaks for the first time. Over the years, six men have provided the voice for Big Tex, saying "Howdy, folks!" about 60 times a day during the fair.
1997: Rebuilt on a cage-like frame made of 4,200 feet of steel rods.
2000: Upgraded with body movements, waving to fairgoers as they pass by on their way to the midway.
2002: Turns 50, gets an all-new wardrobe and a new voice.
2012: Destroyed by fire. Fair officials vow to rebuild the icon for 2013.
The Associated Press