The Todd Pacific Shipyards Corporation (now Vigor Shipyards, Inc.) was located at 16th Avenue SW and SW Florida Street on Harbor Island in Seattle. In 1916, William Todd purchased an existing shipyard there from the Seattle Construction and Dry Dock Company to build steel-hulled merchant vessels for the United States Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation during World War I (1914-1918). Todd, with satellite operations in Bremerton and Everett, was the largest private shipyard in the Pacific Northwest, employing more than 750 workers. In February 2011, Vigor Industrial LLC of Portland, Oregon, purchased Todd Pacific Shipyards for $130 million.
A Slow-Starting Blaze
On Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 28, 1968, a small fire started in the substructure of Todd Pacific Shipyards’ Repair Pier 4 in the Duwamish River West Waterway. A short circuit in a temporary 110-220-volt electrical conduit, running underneath the 1,400-foot-long pier, ignited heavily creosoted pilings and timbers. There were no below-pier sprinklers installed in the immediate area and an on-shore breeze dissipated the smoke and stoked the smoldering fire for approximately 30 minutes before it was noticed. Todd Shipyards was on a four-day holiday and not many employees were working at the facility that day.
At approximately 1:00 p.m., Sherwood Barnett, a dockside crane operator, saw smoke coming from beneath Pier 4 near the forward gangway to the 600-foot oil tanker MV Chevron Liege. The ship was undergoing emergency repairs to her bow after having struck a dock in Anchorage, Alaska. Barnett sounded the alarm and all the shipyard workers left the tanker and began fighting the fire. The fire watch sent in the first alarm to the Seattle Fire Department at 1:10 p.m. Because shipyard fires are extremely dangerous, the response brought to Harbor Island two ladder companies, four engine companies and the fireboats Duwamish and Alki from Fire Station No. 5, located on the waterfront at the foot of Madison Street. Chief of the Fifth Battalion sent in the second alarm at 1:16 p.m. which brought four additional engine companies, another ladder company, Seattle Fire Chief Gordon F. Vickery (1920-1996) and Assistant Fire Chief Frank R. Hanson to the shipyard. A third alarm brought four more engine companies and a special call at 1:30 p.m. brought another two engine companies along with a multitude off-duty firefighters with eight pieces of apparatus held in reserve.
Tugboats quickly moved toward the pier and towed the Chevron Liege to safety. Paint was blistered along the port side of the tanker, but there was no major damage. Tugs also moved the 441-foot freighter SS John Weyerhaeuser (formerly the Liberty Ship Edward B. Haines) and the Navy’s newly launched, 438-foot destroyer escort USS Lockwood (DE 1064), away from Pier 4 to allow the fireboats unobstructed access to the fire. The 65-foot hydrofoil vessel Victoria was sitting high and dry on the north end of the pier, undergoing repairs, and could not be moved.
Fire, Smoke, and Death
The fire headed toward the middle of the pier’s substructure and burned through the main 440-volt conduits, tripping the circuit breakers. The heat ruptured a pressurized oxygen-supply pipe running beneath Pier 4 and within minutes, the underside of the pier in front of the shipyard’s complex of repair shops was engulfed in flames. At times, flames leaped 30 feet into the air, but most of the fire was out of sight beneath the pier. The fireboats Duwamish and Alki maneuvered along the west face of Pier 4, but the angle was too low and the distance too far for their water cannons to be effective and the east side of the pier was inaccessible at the location where the fire was burning.
Firefighters used jackhammers to rip sections of thick blacktop off the pier and then cut access holes in the decking with chain saws to enable hose lines to reach the substructure. Firefighters on rafts and in small boats, with support from the fireboats, carried hose lines underneath the pier and attempted to extinguish the blaze. The smoke was so thick, however, they couldn’t see where to aim their hoses and as one fire was extinguished, another would suddenly erupt.
At about midnight, shipyard workers noticed one of the drydocks was taking on water and sinking. The blaze had cut electrical service to the pump house and the bilge pumps had been out of operation for several hours. A temporary 440-volt line was attached to the main power panel to restore service to the pumphouse and provide power to a bank of floodlights. At 12:30 a.m., firefighter Henry C. Gronnerud, age 41, a 12-year veteran from Engine Company 15, and a shipyard employee were making an electrical hookup when the power was inadvertently turned on. Gronnerud, kneeling on a steel rail, was immediately electrocuted and the shipyard employee seriously injured. Paramedics attempted to resuscitate Gronnerud, but he was pronounced dead at 12:45 a.m. by a fire department physician.
As the battle wore on, efforts to control the stubborn fire eventually concentrated on a 100-foot-by-100-foot area beneath the pier. At 3:04 a.m., after almost 14 hours of grueling and dangerous work, the fire was officially declared “tapped out.” However, crews remained at the shipyard throughout the following day to conduct mopping-up operations and prevent the fire from rekindling. One firefighter had been killed and 28 had suffered varying degrees of injuries and smoke inhalation, 11 of which required hospitalization. Fire department physicians also sent numerous firefighters home with minor injuries, mostly from smoke inhalation. “This fire is an example of the type of beating that firemen are exposed to. It took tremendous tenacity to fight a fire like this and some were there for more than 14 hours” said Chief Vickery (“Fireman Dies Making Electrical Hookup”).
A Historic Tragedy
For the Seattle Fire Department, the Todd Pacific Shipyard fire was a rare four-alarm response, ultimately involving 14 engine companies, three ladder companies, two fireboats and miscellaneous apparatus held in reserve. According to Chief Vickery, approximately 300 firefighters battled the fire at any one time, with a total of some 500 involved in the call out. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard sent patrol boats and two cutters to Harbor Island and Foss Maritime Company dispatched all available harbor tugs to render assistance. Numerous Seattle Police Officers were sent to Harbor Island to control traffic and curious spectators, and to keep the streets open for the movement of fire fighting equipment. Damage to the Todd Pacific Shipyards repair facility was estimated to be $250,000.
The funeral for Henry Charles Gronnerud (1927-1968) was held at the E. R. Butterworth and Sons Mortuary, 300 E Pine Street, on Monday, December 2, 1968. More than 200 uniformed firefighters were among some 500 people who attended the service. The funeral cortege which accompanied the hearse from the mortuary to Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery, 11111 Aurora Avenue N, stretched for well over a mile. Gronnerud was survived by his wife, Mary, and daughter Katherine Ann.
The 1968 Thanksgiving Day fire was the seventh major shipyard fire on Harbor Island in six years. Five of the fires had been at Todd Pacific Shipyards and two at the Lockheed Shipbuilding Company (formerly Puget Sound Bridge and Dry Dock Company). Chief Vickery requested the installation of specially designed below-pier sprinkler systems and additional fire hydrants in the shipyards, which improved fire safety considerably.