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The Day Tom Petty’s House Burned Down

Tom Petty
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Tom Petty and his family were sitting down to breakfast on the morning of May 17, 1987, when they began to smell smoke. Within moments, Petty’s Encino, Calif., home was engulfed in flames.

He got his wife and 5-year-old daughter out safely, and then did his best to fight the blaze alongside his housekeeper (who sustained minor injuries after her hair caught fire). Petty later remembered picking up a hose only to have it melt in his hands. Firefighters did their best, but the fire burned through the house quickly. The only room that went unscathed was Petty’s basement studio.

The Pettys had lost nearly everything. Annie Lennox came to the rescue with clothes for the family (her Eurythmics partner Dave Stewart lived next door). Without a home to stay in, Petty took his family out on an already planned tour with the Heartbreakers – who were opening for and backing Bob Dylan.

More shocking than the loss of their home and possessions (estimated at about $1 million) was the fact that investigators determined that the fire was not an accident. According to a report, an arsonist had drenched the house’s back staircase in lighter fluid. Petty and his family were deeply disturbed by the fact that someone had wanted to kill them.

“We were shaken for years by it,” Petty admitted in Paul Zollo’s 2005 book Conversations With Tom Petty. “It’s sort of like being raped, I would imagine. It really took a long time. And it was 10 times as bad, because you knew that somebody just went and did it. Somebody tried to off you.”

Petty said that, as a result of the blaze, he had trouble using the word “fire” in his song lyrics. However, he did write one of his most famous tunes about the experience: “I Won’t Back Down,” which appeared on 1989’s Full Moon Fever, was inspired by defiant feelings toward his attacker. “I’ll stand my ground / And I won’t back down,” he sang. And that’s exactly what the singer-songwriter did, quickly rebuilding a new home on the exact same site – but preserving the untouched basement studio. Curious fans got a peek inside the rebuilt home, via realty websites, when it went on the market in 2013.

As for the person who set the near-fatal fire, no suspect was ever charged. The case remains unsolved.

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