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SFD History: 1990's
Submitted by dennis on Mon, 12/25/2006 - 7:00pm
The year 1990 was a busy one for fire activity, particularly during the very hot summer.The big event 1990, however, was the Goodwill Games in which, for security reasons, the Fire Department played a large part. Personnel from the Fire Marshal's Office covered all event sites inside the city both before and during the competitions. An additional engine
company using off‑shift crews was placed in service on the University of Washington campus where the athletes were housed. Two additional medic units were placed in service during the same period, from July 18 to August 6. also using off‑shift personnel.
Perhaps the longest fire in Seattle's history took place the week of September 16, 1991. At 9:39 A.M. that Monday a full response was dispatched to a fire reported aboard the M.V. Omnisea, a 325‑foot fish processing vessel tied up at Pier 91. Fire had begun in thepacking room following a welding operation, and spread throughout the lower hold and crew's quarters. Confronted with high heat and poor visibility little progress could be made. A decision was made to seal the entire ship and introduce large volumes of carbon dioxide, Fire crews from the 4‑11 response prepared monitoring equipment and, with help from the ship's crew and pierside personnel, completed the sealing of the main deck. Large CO 2 transport trucks began to arrive that afternoon, and the process of filling the lower holds began. Fire companies rotated the monitoring and stand‑by duties until Wednesday, September 18 when temperatures appeared low enough to allow entry, Gradually opening up section after section, the incident commander finally declared the fire under control at 4:29 P.M. on Thursday, September 19.
One of Seattle's largest apartment building fires occurred the next Saturday evening, September 21. Fire started in a first floor apartment of the Villa Plaza, a 4‑story, 98‑unit building at 9111 ‑50th Ave. S. The electricity had been turned off in that unit, and the blaze was ignited by a candle. The occupant ran upstairs to summon help from someone in another apartment, but left her front door open. Fire was shortly throughout the first floor hall. Approximately three feet of the top of the first floor hall was above ground and open to the parking lot, All of the upper floors were of open balcony design, These open balconies were faced with 2x4s set several inches apart to prevent unauthorized entry, but they became excellent kindling* Soon the upper floors were burning furiously. Fire completely destroyed a major portion of the building. Sections collapsed during the fire fighting operations. The first alarm was dispatched at 9:37 P.M. The fire was declared under control at 3:51 A.M. the next morning after seven occupants and two fire fighters were injured, One of those injured occupants had fallen from the top floor while escaping‑and died in the hospital of those injuries at a later date.
One of the programs resultant of the TriData study involved fire apparatus. After the hiring of Mitch Halgren as Fleet Manager the Department's vehicles came to the ownership of the Department of Administrative Services Fleet Administration. This was one of the recommendations of that study, and gave the Fire Department proper financial backing for acquisition and maintenance of vehicles as well as access to the D.A.S. engineering staff. An apparatus replacement plan was developed to cover new apparatusthrough 1999. Funding was approved by the City Council. The first of the new apparatus so purchased arrived with the delivery of nine new pumpers between November., 1991 and February, 1992. These were followed by three new aerial ladder trucks in December, 1992. By 1999 the plan, as finalized, would provide a total of thirty‑one new pumpers, seven new ladder trucks, a new HazMat unit, and a new fuel unit.
Following a trial at the end of April, 1992 that acquitted several police officers in the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles a major riot erupted in that city. Smaller riots took place in a number of other cities, and Seattle was no exception. Window smashing, looting, vehicle fires, and dumpster fires began on the evening of April 30 and continued for another day. Friday night, May 1st, was the most destructive. A 2‑11 fire heavily damaged the "High Point Housing Project" maintenance building, the first alarm being dispatched at 11:32 P.M. Another 2‑11 fire heavily damaged a 2‑story frame apartment building at 418 E. John St. shortly after midnight. At 2:32 A.M. the first of four alarms was sounded for a fire in the "Ransom Apartments" at 1415 ‑ 11th Ave. That building was unoccupied at the time because of an ongoing renovation project. Also damaged during this last blaze were the Ruth Ashbrook Bakery and Davis & Hoffman, Inc. automobile body repair and painting. Mutual Aid was given by fire departments from Bellevue, Kirkland, and numerous other jurisdictions. Meanwhile the rash of dumpster and automobile fires continued until daybreak Saturday, May 2.
The temperature going into the long holiday weekend was quite hot when, on Friday, July 3, 1992, a fire broke out in the old "Magnolia Feed & Fertilizer Co.", a block‑long vacant mill at 1144 Ballard Way. A metal salvage operation was being conducted in a small portion of the west wing. Piles of paper insulation had been peeled and stripped from coils of metal cable. Sparks from the friction of a power saw being used to cut through the cables ignited the paper and spread to the old frame building. When crews from the 2:58 P.M. alarm arrived the entire west wing of the building was fully involved, and fire was spreading to the rest of the vacant plant. Before a 4‑11 assignment could bring the blaze under control at 5:14 P.M. the building was in ruins, but fire had been kept from spreading to any other property. Four fire fighters suffered from injury or heat exhaustion. Not two weeks later, on July 15, fire destroyed a large old foundry building on Harbor Island. The time was 5:58 P.M. when a fire was discovered in the rear of the building near a curing oven. The flames , fed by natural gas from ruptured fuel lines, made quick work of the main plant building. An adjacent paint and solvent warehouse was protected both by a deluge sprinkler system and by water curtains from master hose streams. Rush hour traffic was completely snarled by the closure in both directions of the high‑level West Seattle Bridge and the Spokane Street Bridge. A 4‑11 alarm response brought the fire under control at 8:19 P.M.
From the summer of 1992 into the winter of 1993 the State of Washington suffered the worst serial arson spree in American history. Although several fires occurred in Pierce County and a few more east of the Cascade Mountains, the largest number took place in the area north from the Lake Washington Ship Canal in north Seattle, through north King and south Snohomish Counties, into Everett. The first fires occurred the night of August 2. 1992 involving residences under construction. The pattern was usually two or three fires in the same general area on the same night, Gradually, fires were also involving churches and other commercial structures. By the end of August a Northwest Arson Task Force was formed with members from fire department investigation units, law enforcement agencies, and federal agents. The trend turned ominous on September 20 when three occupied homes were ignited, fires.
Over sixty were attributed to the arsonist by the end of October. The Task Force developed a profile of the arsonist and released some details to the news media. Many false leads were reported by suspicious citizens, but all were acted upon. A big lead came when a suspect vehicle was described as a new car with dealer plates. As the number of fires mounted the Task Force took a bold step on January 27, 1993 by releasing the full profile, including a general physical description, social profile, and a list of the date, time, and location of each suspect fire. After reading the news the suspect's father, an Everett businessman, recognized his son, Paul Keller, and anxiously contacted the Task Force. Several other acquaintances reacted similarly to the news release. A surveillance of Paul Keller was begun, and Task Force members worked with the family to develop an interrogation approach once he was taken in for questioning. Shortly after 6 A.M. on February 6 Task Force members went to Paul's apartment and took him in to be interviewed. His father met him there. In about an hour he had confessed to many of the fires, even going to the sites with investigators and explaining how it happened. Over one hundred fires after its inception., the arson epidemic came to an end.
One of the changes resulting from the 1989 Blackstock Lumber fire and the ensuing TriData study was upgrading communications. The city opted to change all of its departments, communications at the same time by converting all city radios to an 800‑megaherz trunk system. The Fire Alarm Center,, which had moved into a retrofitted 2nd floor space at Station 2 previously part of the old Fire Garage ‑ could easily be altered to accept the new radio system, The Fire Alarm move came in April., 1991 when the Fire Department began using a new CAD dispatch system and central computer data management system. In early 1994 the change to the new 800‑megaherz radios took place.
Early on the evening of Tuesday, September 17, 1994 two major fires struck almost simultaneously. The first, at 6:02 P.M. involved construction materials and debris atop the 7‑story "Lake Union Building" at 1700 Westlake Ave. N. The material ignited was from an on‑going re‑roofing operation there. Special calls for two more engine companies, two more ladder companies, and the fireboat, along with accompanying move‑ups, affected the response, at 6:35 p.m., to an apartment house fire at 3716 S. Angeline St. The fire started when City Light restored electrical power to a 3rd floor apartment after it had been shut off for a tenant change. A burner on the electric kitchen range had apparently been left on when the power was turned off, and a skillet of grease was still on the burner. The new tenant was away when the power was restored, thus no one noticed that the burner was reheated. Fire spread into the cockloft and damaged or destroyed almost all top floor apartments. A 4‑11 alarm assignment brought the fire under control by 7:39 P.M.
Fall‑out from this fire came the next month when a fire fighter anonymously reported to the State Department of Labor & Industries that the Fire Department manpower tracking system was not activated at the fire until three hours after it had started. This complaint was received at L. & I. on October 4. On October 17 a second anonymous complaint was filed with L. & I. that the new 800‑megaherz portable radios were not working properly. It stated that, in a hurry to convert the radio system, the city had not purchased waterproof portable radios, but splashproof ones instead. The result was that they failed to operate when wet.The "splashproof" radio was intended for police., not fire., operations. Battalion Chief Rodney Jones, the Safety Officer at the time, wrote a memo to the Chief critical of the Angeline Street operations, He was ordered to write no more such memos of this kind which., he was told, the Chief thought were "editorializing".
On the morning of November 8, 1994 sparks from a cutting torch ignited foam insulation in the lower deck area of the 324‑foot M.V. Yardarm Knot, a fish processing ship tied up for repairs at a service dock on the Lake Washington Ship Canal at 4025 ‑ 13th Ave. W. As fire raced through insulation in the ship's forward areas firefighters from the 9:27 A.M. alarm quickly called for a 2‑11, 3‑11, and 4‑11 alarm. Fifteen fire fighters suffered respiratory problems from ammonia and chlorine leaking from tanks whose over‑pressure seals had fused in the heat. The fire was not declared under control until 4:39 P.M.
The most devastating fire in the Department's history took place on the evening of January 5, 1995. At 7:03 P.M. the first alarm was dispatched to Mary Pang's Food Products, a one‑story frame, block‑long frozen food plant and warehouse at 811 ‑ 7th Ave. S. Heavy fire was noted at the rear of the building. After large streams had darkened much of the fire on the main floor, a fire crew entered for final extinguishment. What was not realized was that the fire, an arson, was in the basement. The fire which was knocked down was just its extension into the 1st floor. The basement fire, burning through a supporting floor beam., caused a section of the floor to drop into the basement as it rushed up into the main level. Firefighters rushed out of the nearest doors and windows to escape the heat., several of them suffering burns. At this point it was known that four of them had not come out. Lieutenants Walter Kilgore and Greg Shoemaker, and Firefighters James Brown and Randall Terlicker were still inside. Because the building now was too unsafe to enter it was not possible to effect a rescue attempt until the flames had been driven back. The 5‑11 alarm assignment effected control by 5:00 A.M. Then the search was on. The last body found, that of Randy Terlicker, was removed shortly before 7:00 P.M. on January 8. The loss of four members at one incident is the most ever suffered by the Seattle Fire Department.
The Pang fire resulted in four independent investigations, which studied the entire operation. The State Department of Labor & Industries, the United States Fire Administration the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs each conducted its own probe. In May an administration change placed the Safety Officer position directly under the Assistant Chief of Operations rather than the Chief of Training. Chief Rodney Jones, the Safety Officer, disagreed with this decision as it placed the Safety Officer in a subordinate position of the division he was to monitor. He was transferred on May 31, being replaced by Battalion Chief John Hadfield.
When L. & I. completed its investigation violations were found, including lack of communications within the Department and not providing all possible safety equipment such as flame‑resistant cloth hoods. The greatest violation noted in their report, however, was interference with the Safety Officer and his duties. The Department was fined once again.
The investigation into the cause of the Pang fire pointed to the business owners' son, Martin Pang, as the one responsible for setting it. Because of a tip received in December he was under suspicion. After eluding police and FBI agents he fled to Brazil. He was arrested in Rio de Janeiro on March 16, and the long court battle for extradition was under way. When it was over the Brazilian Supreme Court allowed extradition with the stipulation that he could be tried for arson only. Martin Pang was returned to the King County Jail on February 29, 1996, He was sentenced to thirty‑five years imprisonment on March 24, 1998.
In the wake of the Pang fire the Safety Officer was upgraded to a Deputy Chief position. One Battalion Chief was assigned as Assistant Safety Officer on each platoon who was subordinate to the Deputy, thus assuring the swift arrival of a Safety Officer at each incident.
After almost thirty‑eight years in the Fire Service Chief of Department Claude Harris retired, effective December 31, 1996. Assistant Chief Don Taylor served as Interim Chief while the search for a new Chief took place. The search ended, and on May 27, 1997 James Sewell ‑ up to then the Chief of the Ventura County (Calif.) Fire Department ‑ was appointed to the post.
Before Chief Sewell took office two major fires struck the city. The first occurred on the afternoon of February 20, 1997 at the vacant Sunny Jim's Food Products peanut butterplant at 4200 Airport Way S. The large warehouse section was leased to the City of Seattle Traffic Engineering Division for storage and repair of stop signal equipment, traffic meters, and assorted electrical gear. Workers were repairing sections of the warehouse roof when sparks ignited the older plant and office wings. The unstable condition of that vacant section precluded entry as crews from a 3‑11 alarm assignment controlled the blaze.
Just before midnight on March 5 a fire was discovered behind the freezers and cold storage areas of a large Thriftway supermarket in West Seattle. It had been caused by an electrical short in the cold storage wiring. Fire burned furiously inside the walls and into the large open cockloft. Firefighters were driven to an exterior attack by exploding aerosol containers and other storage. The roof caved in as the building was totally destroyed. The fire crews from three alarms controlled the flames.
In 1998 Chief Sewell proposed to the city a three‑part plan to upgrade the Fire Department: first, add sixty‑five new firefighters to the ranks; second, build a new, modern training center; and third, establish an officer training program, So far the gain has been only twenty‑eight new fire fighter positions ‑ seven per platoon.
Each spring since 1989, on the weekend nearest June 6, the city has celebrated the Pioneer Square Fire Festival with a parade and display of antique and modern fire apparatus, demonstrations of fire fighter skills, food and craft booths, and a party. In 1998 June 6, the anniversary of the 1889 fire, fell on a Saturday. This year the Festival took on additional meaning when the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial was dedicated. Thanks to the work of Battalion Chief Wes Goss and his Memorial Committee the bronze sculpture was now in place. On a granite block is inscribed the name of each Seattle fire fighter who died in the line of duty.
On the hot afternoon of July 26, 1998 a worker in the Sea‑Thai Kitchen restaurant at 12504 Lake City Way N.E. noticed smoke coming through the common wall from Jack's & Jill's Tavern next door, The first of three alarms was sounded at 12:05 P.M. The fire, caused by a faulty electric cord in the tavern (which was closed at the time) spread into the large cockloft of the one‑story building destroying all five businesses inside: the Thai restaurant, the tavern, a used clothing store, a European bakery, and the "Lake City Florist". It was declared under control at 2:39 P.M.
The Fremont District turned deadly on Friday afternoon, November 27, 1998 when, at 3:13 PM a Metro Transit articulated bus travelling south on Aurora Avenue crashed through the heavy guardrail of the Aurora Bridge and fell forty to forty‑five feet, striking an apartment building below on N, 36th St. A passenger had shot the driver. The bus veered left into northbound traffic, striking a van before it plunged off the bridge. The gunman then shot himself also. One 69‑year‑old passenger also died in the crash. Thirty‑three other passengers were taken to Seattle hospitals as the multiple‑casualty triage system worked overtime. Many were treated and released, but several remained in serious condition.
The new N.F.P.A. standard known as the "two in., two out" rule took effect in 1998. This basically means that, when two firefighters enter a building to extinguish a fire, at least two more firefighters must be outside, able to assist the inside crew to safety should anything go awry. This affects many jurisdictions like Seattle where most of the engine companies carry a crew of three. When an engine arrives at a fire alone the pump operator would be the only one outside until the next company arrives. Without all of the sixty‑five additional personnel requested in 1998 this standard cannot be put into effect without rearranging manpower. Several plans have been put forth, and one should be adopted shortly.
A look back at the apparatus replacement program of 1989 shows that it was flexible. When conditions warranted, the actual nature of the units purchased was adapted to the Department's needs at the time. When the condition of aerial apparatus required attention, pumpers that were to be purchased were dropped and additional aerial ladder trucks were added, Instead of replacing the fuel truck a procedure was developed and installed whereby the Department of Administrative Services diesel fuel tankers would respond on call. The vehicles actually purchased by 1999 include twenty‑four pumpers, nine ladder trucks, one haz‑mat truck, one heavy rescue truck., one command van, one air bottle transport, one mobile S.C.B.A. compressor truck, and a Kenworth tractor for the Urban Search and Rescue trailer,
Now we are all about to enter another millennium. One thing that is certain is that change will continue to take place within the Fire Service everywhere.