DALLAS – The man who provides the voice for Big Tex, the giant cowboy at the State Fair of Texas, was greeting people with his usual "Howdy, folks!" in a slow drawl Friday when someone rushed into his trailer to tell him the towering fair icon was on fire.
"It moved quickly," Bill Bragg said of the fire that engulfed the 52-foot-tall structure, leaving not much more than its charred metal frame behind. "It was a quick end."
This year's fair was supposed to be a celebration for Big Tex, marking his 60th birthday. Instead, the beloved cowboy was hauled from the grounds on a flatbed truck two days before the end of the fair in a procession resembling a funeral.
"It's sad to see this happen, but it's lucky no one was injured or killed," said Mike Blucher of Dallas, who was at the fair with his wife, Linda.
The fire brought a temporary end to a piece of Texas culture.
The cowboy with the 75-gallon hat and 50-pound belt buckle always was easy to spot and served as a popular meeting place for people coming to the fair or attending the annual Texas-Oklahoma football game at the nearby Cotton Bowl. But all that remained by noon Friday were hands and shirt leaves on a burned skeleton.
"Big Tex is a symbol of everything the state fair stands for," fair spokeswoman Sue Gooding said. "Big Tex is where my parents told me, 'If you get lost, meet at Big Tex.'"
Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesman Joel Lavender said Friday afternoon that the cause of the blaze had not been determined.
Some dispatchers took a playful approach to reporting the blaze. "Got a rather tall cowboy with all his clothes burned off," one said. "Howdy, folks, it's hot," another said.
Fair officials and city leaders quickly called for the return of Big Tex, vowing to rebuild the structure. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings tweeted that the cowboy would become "bigger and better for the 21st Century."
Big Tex's hands, boots and face were made of Fiberglas, Gooding said. The clothing that burned had been provided last year by a Fort Worth company, she said.
Gooding speculated that the fire could have started in mechanical workings at the base of the structure and that the metal skeleton "served as a chimney." The skeleton will be evaluated, and a new one will be built if necessary, she said.
Stanley Hill, who supervises a food stand that has been located near the structure for 18 years, said he noticed smoke coming from Big Tex's neck area. That quickly turned into a blaze that engulfed the structure's fabric covering.
"Once it started burning, it was gone," Hill said.
The structure was removed Friday in essentially the same way workers put it up every year — with a crane that slowly lowers it. Only this time, the steel skeleton was covered with a tarp.
Big Tex was actually built in 1949 as a giant Santa Claus for a Christmas celebration in Kerens, 60 miles south of Dallas. Intrigued by the idea of a towering cowboy, the State Fair paid $750 for the structure, which debuted as Big Tex in 1952.
Big Tex is inextricably linked to the State Fair. The State Fair website is www.bigtex.com, and visitors to the site see their cursor turn into an image of Big Tex's head, clad in a cowboy hat. The fair's Twitter account features the cowboy's image as well.
"You know somebody's a true Texan if you say 'Big Tex' and they don't look at you like you're weird," Gooding said.
Perhaps no one is closer to the giant cowboy than Bragg, who has served as the voice of Big Tex the last 11 years. Working inside a trailer a few yards from the base of the structure, the 65-year-old radio engineer reads from a script while his voice makes Big Tex's mouth move automatically.
As the crane moved into position to remove his old friend, Bragg was philosophical, saying he'd already been told he would be welcoming people to the fair in the same fashion next year.
"My job is safe and secure," he said. "They're telling me, 'Take the rest of the day off and we'll see you next year.'"
Associated Press writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this report.