The Tyee Motor Inn in Tumwater first opened in June 1958 with 39 units. The inn quickly expanded into a luxury motel and by 1961 had become a popular venue for Olympia's legislators as well as for conventions and banquets. During the 1960s the motel owners continued to expand the motel and by January 1970 the Tyee Motor Inn boasted 209 units and 11 banquet rooms.
Shortly after 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday, January 27, 1970, a fire started either in or near a kitchen "salamander" (overhead broiler). Several night-cleanup employees broke out hand-held fire extinguishers to fight the blaze, but it quickly spread to the kitchen's roof and then began to rapidly spread through the west wing of the motel. Although contemporary accounts did not pinpoint the cause of the fire, they confirmed that it was accidental.
Shirley McQueen was a night bartender in the motel's Tom Too Cocktail Lounge. She had just closed the lounge and was in the main office counting receipts when she saw flames erupt from the kitchen and dining room. She and Linda Gilbert, a visitor at the motel, began telephoning the motel's guest rooms to alert the sleeping guests of the fire. Soon fire and smoke forced the two women from their posts. McQueen then raced down the corridors pounding on doors and awakening guests. "I thought someone had had too much to drink," commented state representative Bill Chatalas. "[But then] I smelled smoke and got out of there" (The Daily Olympian).
Forcing Them Out of Bed
About the same time Tumwater firefighters arrived on the scene, as well as two Thurston County deputies, Frank Mutton and Claude McFarland. Mutton and McFarland kicked in doors of some of the rooms and hustled guests to safety -- in some instances by force. But the actions of McQueen, Mutton and McFarland were later credited with preventing serious injuries and possibly saving lives.
One witness reported that most of the motel was ablaze within 15 minutes. Aided by a strong northwest wind, the fire raced down the motel's connecting corridors, which one firefighter on the scene described as a "horizontal chimney" (The Daily Olympian). The fire spread quickly through the motel's west wing -- which contained the kitchen, dining room, cocktail lounges, meeting rooms and main lobby -- and then spread to the east wing, which contained most of the guest rooms. To make matters worse, once the east wing of the motel was ablaze, the winds shifted to the south and began fanning the flames back into the faces of the firefighters trying to fight it.
Coals and Clouds of Smoke
The main structure burned rapidly, lighting up the sky for miles and sending up bright coals and large clouds of smoke. Those evacuated from the motel -- some in only their nightclothes, "or less" (The Daily Olympian) -- stood shivering outside in rain and 40-degree temperatures, huddled under blankets snatched from the motel as they escaped.
By 6 a.m., firefighters had the fire under control. But by then 159 units of the 209-unit motel had been destroyed. The original 39-unit north wing of the motel survived the fire, along with 11 separate cabanas. Only one injury was reported: bruised ribs sustained by an Olympia firefighter when he fell through a crawl hole in the boiler room.
A damp dawn spread across the smoking ruins as firefighters continued to quash the fire. All believed that the motel had been completely evacuated, but about 8 a.m., Patrolman Jim Bean decided to make another check of the largely undamaged cabanas. He discovered a guest still asleep in one of them. Incredibly, the guest had slept through the whole thing. Bean said the oblivious guest "took a look through the window at the destruction surrounding him and exclaimed, 'Oh, my God!'" (The Daily Olympian).