During spring break in April 1970 an arson fire destroyed the wood stands of Washington State University’s football stadium. The Cougars were forced to play off campus for two years while the University built a new stadium. To this day, the mystery of who started the fire and how they did it remains.
April 1970. Around 10 p.m. seven-year-old Joanna Law, asleep in her bed, is awakened by sounds in the living room. In her pajamas, she pads out of her bedroom to join her older brother and sister at a large picture window. Looking south over the Washington State University campus, they witness an appalling sight: a raging fire devouring the stands around Rogers Field.
For the next two hours the Law children and their mother watched one of WSU’s biggest mysteries unfold, as flames fed on the dry timbers of the old bleachers on the east side of the stadium, sending plumes of smoke over Pullman. Spitting giant embers into the sky, that fire destroyed nearly all the south stands at the football arena, the press box, and the end zone of what had been the home field to both the WSU Cougars and the University of Idaho Vandals.
Joanna’s father, David Law, was assistant director of the general extension service and had left home that night to pick something up from his office near Cleveland Hall. It was spring break, so campus was empty. He remembers traveling up Stadium Way and glancing over at Rogers Field. “It was fine,” he says. “But when I came out from behind Regents Hill a minute later, it was on fire. It happened that fast.”
He ran to the fire department and beat on the door. In just a few seconds, the stands closest to him were engulfed. Before the firefighters could arrive, people had scrambled over the fence to rescue equipment inside. Law saw Cal Watson, a communication professor, risk his life to drive the new KWSU-TV bus away from the stadium.
Today, David Law (’59 Speech, ’71 M.A. Speech & Hearing Sci.), a retiree living in Metaline Falls, and Joanna (Law) Steward (’86 Comm.), a magazine editor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, are still haunted by the event. “Did they ever find out what happened?” asked Joanna last spring, echoing what students asked at the time and what the Pullman community still wonders.
The answer is no. The mystery of what, or who, caused the fire that changed the face of WSU football has never been solved.
But there was no question it was arson. According to newspaper stories printed in the days following the fire, investigators believed someone intentionally set the stadium ablaze. Several students near the scene said they heard three explosions before the fire broke out.
“There was too much fire in too short a time for it to be anything but arson,” J.E. Sykes, the state fire marshal, told the newspapers. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But the incident caused $700,000 in damage to the stands and equipment.
This wasn’t the first time the stadium had been targeted. A year earlier, someone had called in a bomb threat at Rogers Field. According to Richard Fry’s history of sports at WSU, The Crimson and the Gray, a groundskeeper and his boss who went to investigate found not a bomb, but an entire toilet that had been buried upright beneath the 50-yard line.
The late 1960s and early ’70s were times of racial tension and political unrest on campus and around the country. Just a few weeks before the fire, a WSU student protest had turned into a march on Pullman to draw attention to a variety of issues, including the lack of an ethnic studies program on campus, the Vietnam War, and unionizing farm workers.
Given what was happening on campus and nationwide, “I was under the impression the whole country was coming unraveled,” says David Law. “We even had watches stationed around campus, especially in the labs.”
Some townspeople started blaming the students for the fire. But others, like track coach Jack Mooberry, stood up for them, pointing out they were the first to fight the blaze. “A lot of students beat even the firemen to the scene,” Mooberry wrote to a local newspaper. “They had to scale a high fence to help. They went as far up in the south stands as possible, saved two television cameras left by KWSU . . . They used garden hoses to keep water on our rubberized asphalt track and kept that and the lower stands hosed down for most of the night.”
There were other rumors. A firebug in Lewiston was torching public buildings. A Seattle-based dissident group had threatened to come over to Pullman and wreak havoc. Maybe a student activist did it in protest against the Vietnam War.
And some students suggested in a letter circulated on campus that WSU’s own athletics department orchestrated the fire because it wanted a new, updated stadium.
Investigators focused on one person in particular, a student who was already known to the police because of his involvement in prior student protests and who was seen on campus by an officer before the fire. The previous year, in a march to local grocery stores on behalf of field workers, the student was arrested, charged, and convicted of inciting a riot. The University administration believed he was a leader and hero to some of his fellow students. But classmates who attended the protests said he wasn’t a key organizer. One underground student newspaper suggested he had been targeted by the police because he was African American.
The student, who graduated in 1973, couldn’t be reached for this story. His attorney from that time, Wallis Friel ’53, said he was charged but eventually released. “There was never any evidence that he started that fire,” says Friel.
Meanwhile, there was football to be played. A new stadium, named for Governor Clarence D. Martin, whose family donated $250,000 to the project, was completed in 1972, offering 30,000 seats, and an Astroturf field. It was further updated and expanded in 1979.
Three decades later, the Martin Stadium is changing again. Financed by a $24.65 million bond issue and student support via a $25-per-semester fee, WSU officials started the first phases of the Martin Stadium renovation in December 2006. The project is expected to provide better access, improved concessions and restrooms, and ultimately 7,700 more seats. The first two phases will include changes to the south, east, and north parts of the stadium, adding restrooms, widening the south concourse, and improving the overall look. The bond money will be repaid through athletic department revenues, specifically a facility fee placed on football tickets, and the student fees.
Two more phases, which have yet to be funded, will include the building of luxury suites, loge and club seats atop the north stands, and more seating on the east. The final phases, scheduled to start in 2008, will be funded through donations, sponsorships, and revenue from the leasing of premium seating. Construction will proceed in such a way as not to interfere with the 2007 and 2008 football seasons.
It’s a long way from the wooden structure built in 1936. But at the heart of this stadium project lies the mystery that brought Martin Stadium into being in the first place.