At 3:40 p.m., wisps of black smoke were seen rising from the south side of the pier. Wharfinger C. B. Hicock was the first to sound the alarm, rushing towards the alarm box, crying “Fire!” as he ran.
Firefighters from nearby Engine House 5 quickly arrived from next door. When they entered the warehouse, no smoke was visible, but within minutes, thick smoke began billowing through the floorboards. One firefighter immediately ran to signal a first alarm fire signal, but suddenly a “flash over” occurred, where all contents of a fire reach ignition at the same time. The entire dock, and the surrounding air, burst into flame all at once.
The Grand Trunk dock was only four years old. Opened in 1910 as the largest wooden pier on the West Coast, the dock was built atop 5,000 creosote-soaked piles, and constructed using 3,700,000 board feet of lumber. Within seconds, it became a burning maelstrom.
In the Line of Duty
By this time, the hose truck was well inside the building. It became immediately covered in flames, which ignited its 50-gallon gasoline tank, badly burning the firefighters beside it. Lieutenant J. W. Larson escaped outside to fight the fire from there. Patrick Cooper and John Stokes were trapped.
The two men, skin peeling off their arms, ran towards the stairs. Just as Stokes reached the second floor, the stairs collapsed beneath them. Stokes turned to help Cooper, but Cooper fell back into the blaze below. Stokes jumped through a window into the water. Cooper, his body shattered, somehow pulled himself outside and rolled into the bay.
Both men were picked up by rescue boats and taken to the hospital. Cooper died in agony three days later, and Stokes was never able to return to full duty as a fireman.
Trying to Escape
The upper story of the Grand Trunk dock contained business offices. Stenographers, accountants, and business owners madly searched for escape routes. Very few were able to run to the front of the building due to the fire’s intensity. There was no alternative but to jump, or to shimmy down drainpipes.
Investor Frank Wheater was visiting with business agent W. B. Jackling when they heard the alarm. They had no sooner reached the hallway when the smoke became too thick to pass. Returning to the office, Jackling urged Wheater to jump into the water, but Wheater felt he could not leap the 15 feet needed to clear the dock.
Another man, believed to be John Dougal, entered the room, but cried out that he could not swim and disappeared back into the smoke. Jackling again urged his friend to jump, but Wheater could not. By this time, flames were gouting out from the floor below. Jackling had no alternative but to save his own life. He leapt through the flames, burning his face and arms, but clearing the dock. Wheater and Dougal perished inside.
Inside the warehouse, truck driver Harold Harvey and day watchman Orrin Linn helped in the firefighting efforts by grabbing a hose to douse the flames. When reached by firefighters, they were told to escape. Either they did not hear or did not heed, and continued to persevere. This was the last that anyone saw either of them alive.
Participants and Spectators
By this time, a general alarm had been called, and fire crews came rushing in from around the city. Crews in Ballard and Beacon Hill were fighting small neighborhood fires, but every other engine house sent wagons racing to the waterfront. Engine Number 17, from the Latona district, flipped over when it got caught in some car tracks, but its crew escaped injury and sped on foot.
Fortunately the fireboat Duwamish was moored directly north of the dock and was immediately put in service. The boat was taken to the south side, but had to wait for the steamer Admiral Farragut to escape. Passengers were already on board as the boat pulled away, but their luggage lay burning on the pier. One woman cried bitterly for her pet dog, which was stranded in a carrier in the midst of flames.
On shore, hundreds lined the waterfront to watch the flames. Others worked the crowds picking pockets. Some looted nearby stores. Edward Standley, son of the proprietor of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, fought souvenir hunters who took advantage of the situation to walk off with curios.
Mayor Hi Gill was in his office at City Hall when he heard news of the fire. Grabbing his hat and coat, he ran out the door. "I haven't seen a good fire for years," he said. But remembering his family, he stated, "Gee, I promised to let them know if ever there was a big fire downtown, so that they could see it. I guess I had better call them." And he did.
Boats from around the Sound navigated towards the dock to assist, but many were turned away when the sides of the vessels began to blister. The fireboat Snoqualmie nearly caught fire itself, yet her crew continually shot 12 streams of water onto the burning dock.
The United States revenue cutter Unalga was credited with saving Colman Dock, which lay directly to the south of the Grand Trunk. The roof of the Colman caught fire from radiant heat, but the crew of the Unalga concentrated their efforts on saving the rest of the building, which they did. Colman Dock received heavy water damage, but it survived.
Forty minutes after the first signs of smoke, the tall tower on the end of the dock crashed into the bay. The remaining section of roof sagged, sending up more sparks. Fireboats and Coast Guard vessels continued to drench the charred remains, and soon after the fire came under control. The dock was completely ruined.
The Damage Done
Besides the five men who died in the fire, 29 were injured, 10 of them firefighters. Some had broken bones caused by falling timbers, others were horribly burned. The body of Frank Wheater could only be identified by a bit of burnt mesh underwear seared into his flesh. The bodies of Harold Harvey, Orrin Linn, and John Dougal were never found.
The total damage to the Grand Trunk dock, and of the businesses therein, was estimated at $413,020. The dock was rebuilt soon after, and stood for almost 50 years. In 1964, it was demolished for the expansion of Colman Dock.