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Fire breaks out at Todd Pacific Shipyards (Harbor Island, Seattle) on November 28, 1968.
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On Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1968, fire breaks out under Repair Pier 4 at Todd Pacific Shipyards on Harbor Island, endangering the Naval vessel USS
Lockwood (DE 1064) and two commercial vessels, the SS John Weyerhaeuser and the MV Chevron Liege. Some 500 firefighters and shipyard workers
battle the four-alarm fire for 14 hours before bringing it under control. While fighting the stubborn blaze, one firefighter is killed and 28 others are injured, 11 of whom are hospitalized. Damage to the facility is estimated at $250,000. It is the fifth major fire at Todd Pacific Shipyards in six years and described as one of the longest and most arduous in the history of the Seattle Fire Department.
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
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.
Svein Gilje and Mike Wyne, “1 Dead, 28 Hurt in 14-Hour
Shipyard Fire,” The Seattle Times,
November 29, 1968, p. 1; “Three Ships Saved in Fire,” Ibid., November 29, 1968, p. 3; “Fireman Dies Making Electrical
Hookup,” Ibid., November 29, 1968, p.
3; “11 Injured Firemen Sent to Hospitals,” Ibid.,
November 29, 1968, p. 3; “Blaze at Harbor Island Seventh Fire in Six Years,” Ibid., November 29, 1968, p. 6; “Fire
Loss at Shipyard Might Hit $250,000,” Ibid.,
November 30, 1968, p. 2; “Deaths and Funerals: Gronnerud, Henry C,” Ibid., December 1, 1968, p. 81; “200
Firemen at Gronnerud Rites,” Ibid.,
December 3, 1968, p. 59; Robert Cour and Charles Russell, “3 Ships Towed to
Safety in Stubborn Todd Blaze,” Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, November 29, 1968, p. 1; “Frogmen, Firemen in Rowboats
Battle Blaze,” Ibid., November 29,
1968, p. B, “SFD History: 1964-1972,” Seattle Fire Fighters Union: IAFF Local
27 website accessed February 14, 2012 (www.iaff27.org).
Travel through time (chronological order):
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Front page, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 29, 1968
Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Photo page, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 29, 1968
Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Photo page, The Seattle Times, November 29, 1968
Courtesy The Seattle Times
Area of Todd Shipyards where firefighter Henry C. Gronnerud was electrocuted, November 29, 1968
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (Document 9468, Published Document Collection)
Seattle firefighter Henry C. Gronnerud (1927-1968)
Courtesy The Seattle Times
Oil tanker MV Chevron Liege, ca. 1960
Courtesy Chevron Corporation
USS Lockwood (DE 1064), ca. 1970
Courtesy United States Navy