Ten Years After Surviving 9/11, Free Willie Nelson is Felled by Fire

Mr. Britt talks to insurersStephen Rex Brown Ron Britt, the owner of the Free Willie Nelson, in front of his damaged RV

The East Village’s most recognizable recreational vehicle caught on fire this morning, destroying the engine and leaving its mellow owner bummed but not brokenhearted.

The Free Willie Nelson, a 1973 Dodge Mahal Travco known for its whale-themed paint job and cowboy-style interior, was set ablaze by an electrical fire at around 8:55 a.m. on Sixth Street near Avenue A.

“A neighborhood icon comes to rest,” said Darryl Thompson, a musician. “Man, this sucks. I slept many nights in this thing — it’s like my old buddy.”

Since Ron Britt bought the RV in 1996, the Free Willie Nelson has been a ubiquitous presence in the East Village; a goofy retro ride with a spirit that would make its namesake proud. But now it’s unclear whether the Free Willie will ever ride on again. “Everything is melted in the engine compartment,” said Mr. Britt, 53. “What wasn’t ruined by the fire was soaked by the fire department. They broke out all the windows.”

Fire damage on the Free Willie NelsonStephen Rex Brown The burnt engine compartment of the R.V.

An hour after the fire, word had already started to spread around the neighborhood. Friends of Mr. Britt’s stopped by and offered their condolences. It didn’t take long before Mr. Thompson and a friend were strumming on a ukulele.

Mr. Britt, who is the super of four buildings in the Lower East Side, explained that when a friend tried to start the RV this morning, the engine caught fire. Mr. Britt was elsewhere, and his friend didn’t know how to open the hood to extinguish the blaze before it was too late.

But Mr. Britt added that the RV was living on borrowed time, anyway. He had parked the ride a block away from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 – the next morning, he miraculously drove it away from the wreckage relatively unscathed. He still keeps a bottle of ash from his parking space in the vehicle.

“It had 10 years it wasn’t supposed to have — to the day,” said Mr. Britt.

IMG_2842Stephen Rex Brown The interior of the R.V., which was in complete disarray.

Mr. Britt’s recently bought another RV, Old Flat Top, which was parked in front of the Free Willie Nelson. But the fire throws a wrench in his plans for a tour of 50 states in 52 weeks with a crew of 12 musicians in three RVs. Mr. Britt had dreamed of spreading good vibes across the nation like a version of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters for the new millennium.

He wasn’t giving up hope, however. Only two hours after the blaze and with the hood of the RV still warm, Mr. Britt was hoping corporate sponsors would give him a bio-diesel engine for the Free Willie. He even envisioned the journey being chronicled through a reality show.

“It’s like a modern-day Lewis and Clark expedition,” said Mr. Britt. “If we get the bio-diesel engine this will all just be part of the trip.”