In the early morning on Sunday, April 25, 1971, fire sweeps through the Seventh Avenue Apartments in downtown Seattle, killing 12 people and injuring 11. The Seattle Fire Department is on scene within minutes, but the flames have climbed quickly through the hallways and up open stairwells to the upper floors, trapping residents in their rooms. With no way to escape, people hang from the windows to avoid the smoke and intense heat, calling for help. Firefighters evacuate many with ladders, but some can't wait and are forced to jump. This tragedy will result in the Seattle City Council passing a more stringent fire ordinance to bolster the "Ozark Ordinance," which had been passed soon after the Ozark Hotel fire in 1970 that killed 20 people. The new provisions will mandate extensive safety upgrades for all of Seattle's older hotels and apartment buildings of less than four stories.
Terror in the Morning
The Seventh Avenue Apartments, located between Union and Pike streets at 1427 7th Avenue, occupied a beautiful, three-story, wood-frame brick building constructed around 1900. It was originally known as the Milton Apartments. Like many of Seattle's older hotels and apartment buildings, even though it conformed to the current city housing code and met the minimum fire-safety regulations, it was basically a firetrap. There were 36 apartments and four sleeping rooms in the building. Front and rear stairwells provided open access from the basement-level apartments to the third floor. An exterior fire escape had been affixed to the rear of the building, accessible through the hallways, and a basement door opened into the alleyway
At 5:52 a.m. on Sunday, April 25, 1971, an officer in a passing police car saw flames in a lower-level window of the Seventh Avenue Apartments and immediately notified the fire department. Deputy Fire Chief Jack N. Richards, en route to another alarm at University Street and 6th Avenue, saw a large column of black smoke pouring from the building and sounded a second alarm at 5:54 a.m., along with a special call for aid cars and Medic 1. When the first firefighters arrived at the scene, the building was already engulfed in flames and occupants were standing on and hanging from window ledges, attempting to escape from the smoke and intense heat. Patrons from Paradise Billiards, 1425½ 7th Avenue, were standing below the windows attempting to catch people falling from the upper-story rooms. Deputy Chief Richards called for a third response at 5:55 a.m.
"While we were on the way, the dispatcher told us people were jumping out the windows," said Deputy Fire Chief Thomas C. McNerney. "There was no time to get out nets, which take ten men to hold. Ladders are faster and that's what we used" ("Ladders Chosen Instead of Nets ..."). At least 15 people were rescued by firefighters using ladders. Occupants of the first floor and basement level either scrambled out windows or exited through the rear basement door to safety. Chief McNerney declared the fire out at 6:13 a.m. and firefighters began the search for victims and the tedious mopping-up operation. In all, five ladder companies and 12 engine companies were dispatched to the blaze. Damage to the building was estimated to be $150,000.
By 9:00 a.m., King County Coroner Leo M. Sowers had identified the remains of 12 victims who had died in the fire. The bodies were removed to the county morgue at Harborview Hospital for autopsy. Although the corpses were badly burned, medical examiners determined that ten of the victims had died inside the apartment building from asphyxiation, one from massive burns, and one from internal injuries sustained in a fall from a third-story window.
An investigation by Fire Marshal Stephen MacPherson determined the fire was caused by a cigarette smoldering in a mattress in a basement-level apartment. The unit had been rented by Magdalene J. Merchant, age 72, known to be a heavy smoker and under medication. The noxious fumes had asphyxiated Merchant before the room ignited. The apartment managers smelled and saw smoke in the hallway and went to investigate. When they attempted to enter the apartment from where smoke was emanating, a fresh supply of oxygen from the opened door caused the room to instantly burst into flames. They were unable to close the door and forced to flee the building. The fire spread rapidly through the hallway and up the open stairwells. Fire Marshal MacPherson estimated once the door was opened, the entire building was engulfed in flames in less than five minutes. The upper-story hallways were an inferno, making it impossible for people to reach the fire escape at the rear of the building. For those residents still alive, the only chance to escape death was through a window.
Twenty survivors of the fire were given immediate assistance by the Seattle-King County chapter of the Red Cross. They were provided vouchers for food, clothing, and accommodations in three nearby hotels. Those who had been hospitalized with injuries were offered help in paying medical expenses.
Code Compliant, But ...
Jitsuo "Joe" Otoshi (1904-1988) had owned the Seventh Avenue Apartments for 16 years. He and his wife, Shina, had been resident managers there for the past four years. According to Otoshi, there were 50 people living in the building, mostly older adults, and no children. The structure had been inspected by the Seattle Building Department in April 1969 and met the minimum fire-safety requirements of the city's housing code. However, the Seventh Avenue Apartments, because it was only three stories high, was not subject to the provisions of a fire-code amendment enacted soon after the Ozark Hotel fire in 1970 that killed 20 people. Dubbed the "Ozark Ordinance," it required one-hour fire resistant closed stairwells, hallways, doors, and transoms, or the installation of an automatic, fire-suppressing sprinkler system. But the ordinance applied only to hotels and apartment buildings of four stories or more.
All the entrance doors to units in the Seventh Avenue Apartments but one were hollow-core and not fire resistant. In July 1970 there had been a kitchen fire in the building and everybody was evacuated, without injury. Two units sustained fire damage, and one entrance door had been replaced with a solid-core door. The fire on April 25, 1971, destroyed all the apartments with hollow-core doors, while the unit with the solid-core door survived relatively unscathed. Fire Marshal MacPherson blamed the rapid spreading of the fire and subsequent deaths mainly on the lack of fire-resistant doors.
On Wednesday, May 19, 1971, at the urging of Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935), Fire Chief Gordon F. Vickery (1920-1996), and Buildings Department Superintendent Alfred Petty (1926-2013), the Seattle City Council passed an amendment to the "Ozark Ordinance" requiring enclosed stairwells, self-closing exit doors, and fire-resistant doors in all hotels and apartment building of less than four stories.
In the mid-1970s, a group of local investors, doing business as the Seventh Avenue Associates LLP, optioned the entire city block bounded by Union and Pike streets and 6th and 7th Avenues. All the buildings were razed and, in a joint venture with the Sheraton Corporation, a 35-story hotel complex, was constructed on the site. The grand opening of the luxurious Seattle Sheraton Hotel occurred in February 1983.
Frieda Brown, 76, asphyxiation
Lester William Butler, 58, asphyxiation
Magdalene J. Merchant, 72, asphyxiation
Francine Marie Pickering, 25, asphyxiation
Victor L. Strohbusch, 61, asphyxiation
Jane E. Strohbusch, 68, asphyxiation
Rose Leeb Tooze, 82, asphyxiation
Richard Webber, 31, third-degree burns (died at Harborview Hospital)
Helen M. Weinhardt, 75, asphyxiation
Adolor A. Wilcox, 50, asphyxiation
Barbara Wilkinson, 42, asphyxiation
Charles Edward Williams, 39, internal injuries (fell from third floor)
Donald Badnett, 51, second-degree burns
George Chin, 62, second-degree burns
Troy A. Flem, 68, smoke inhalation
Ichie Jones, 50, head lacerations
Dorothy Murchie, 70, smoke inhalation
Duncan Murchie, 64, smoke inhalation
Molly M. Olson, 59, smoke inhalation
Shina Otoshi, 59, broken legs
Robert Reisen, 40, second and third-degree burns
Daisy Swanks, 58, smoke inhalation
Maida Thornton, 28, back injury