What is it like to be thrown behind bars when you're 16 and told you'll languish there for the rest of your life, all for a crime you adamantly maintain you didn't commit?
Louis Taylor knows.
He was convicted of arson in a fire that killed 29 people.
But forensic experts now say they can no longer determine whether someone set the hotel fire on that cool winter day in 1970. And on Tuesday, in a Tucson, Arizona, courtroom, he pleaded no contest to the charges in a new hearing and was sentenced to time served -- almost 43 years.
Taylor, now 59 with a shaved head, stood quietly during Tuesday's proceedings. But the son of one of the victims of the disastrous blaze at the Pioneer Hotel left him with a warning.
"I harbor no feelings of ill will or vengeance against you, for my father is now gone and nothing can ever be done to change that fact," Paul D'hedouville II said. "Do as you choose, Mr. Taylor, but choose wisely and do not waste your new beginning at life. The eyes of this courtroom and those beyond these walls, in mind and spirit, will be watching you."
Taylor spoke briefly to reporters after he traded his orange prison garb for a T-shirt and slacks and walked out of prison, saying, "It feels good to feel Mother Earth beneath my feet -- free Mother Earth."
"It's a tale of two tragedies -- the Pioneer Hotel fire, and me getting convicted for it," he said.
A vintage landmark burns
The Pioneer Hotel, built in 1929, was renowned for its gracious ballroom. At 11 floors, it was a protruding gem in downtown Tucson's skyline at the time.
On December 20, 1970, the vintage hotel was filled with guests, and hundreds more were reveling in holiday cheer at a corporate Christmas party.
Just after midnight, a blaze broke out. The landmark building's firefighting measures were badly out of date, and the Pioneer quickly transformed into an inferno.
A morbid spectacle of human tragedy unfolded.
Twenty-eight people died from smoke inhalation, burns, or, in some cases, when they jumped out of windows to escape. The fire wiped out whole families.
Jake Crellin was the first journalist on the scene.
"I still have flashbacks from time to time from some of the stuff I saw, flashbacks of people jumping out of windows to their death," said the former news director of CNN affiliate KVOA.
He avoided looking at the scene with the naked eye, gazing instead through the viewfinder of a camera.
"It helped make it a little easier to watch," he told the affiliate. A crowd of bystanders gathered and looked on in horror.
Some hotel guests were able to knot bed sheets together to make ropes and rappel to safety.
It was one of the deadliest tragedies in Tucson's history.
A quick arrest
Within hours, police arrested a teenage boy, court documents said.
It was Louis Taylor, who had been inside the hotel.
He wasn't a guest and did not work there. And he had books of matches in his pocket.
During police interrogations, the juvenile claimed to have seen someone set the fire. This was before anyone had suspected arson.