On February 18, 1943, the second of Boeing's top-secret B-29 prototype Superfortress bombers catches fire minutes after takeoff from Boeing Field. After a harrowing, fiery flight over downtown Seattle, the airplane crashes into the Frye Packing Company on Airport Way and explodes. The plane's 11 crewmen, including the renowned test pilot Eddie Allen, die, and 20 Frye employees perish; a firefighter also dies fighting the blaze. World War II is raging and wartime press censorship is in effect, and while the event cannot be concealed, the identity of the aircraft type (which will drop the first atomic bombs on Japan to end the war more than two years later) will not be revealed until after the war.
Engine Fires and Fuel Leaks
In 1940, the U.S. Army Air Corps commissioned Boeing to design a new four-engine bomber that could fly higher and farther than the B-17 then in use. The entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941 made the task more urgent. The first prototype, called the XB-29, had its initial flight in September 1942. Though this flight was successful, later flights were plagued with engine failures. On December 30, 1942, the second XB-29 made its first flight, piloted by Edmund T. (Eddie) Allen (1896-1943). One of the plane's engines caught fire while it was aloft, and the fire spread. Allen landed the aircraft just in the nick of time. After a pause for analysis and repairs, it flew again in late January and February. Out of an additional seven flights -- most if not all piloted by Allen -- a fuel leak was detected in one and suspected in another.
Allen was widely known and respected in aviation circles. During World War I (1917-1918 in the U.S.) he served in the Army as a flight instructor, and afterward he became one of the first test pilots for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. (This later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, commonly known as NASA.) He went to work for Boeing in 1927 as an airmail pilot, but he soon became a freelance test flyer for new airplanes and eventually made flights in more than 30 new models. In 1939, he became Boeing's first Director of Aerodynamics and Flight Research. Highly experienced and dedicated, bold but not reckless, he was a natural to be flying the XB-29. He was at the helm for the plane's ninth flight, accompanied by 10 men, most of them engineers. It took off from Boeing Field to the south at 12:09 p.m. on February 18, 1943.
For February, it was a pleasant day: high clouds, moderate temperatures, and a 5 mph breeze out of the south. Eight minutes after takeoff, shortly after the plane reported it was passing over Lake Tapps (Pierce County), a fire broke out in the No. 1 engine on the outside of the left wing. The engine was shut down and the crew quickly put out the fire, and the problem seemed over. Nevertheless, Allen decided to return to Boeing Field and turned north. However, rather than return by the most direct route, which would have required landing the heavy, fuel-laden airplane from the south with the wind behind him, he decided to land the plane from the north and into the wind. As the plane passed over Renton, fire again erupted in the No. 1 engine. Initially, it did not appear serious. Allen passed Boeing Field several miles to his west and flew over the western part of Lake Washington, then turned southwest and crossed the shoreline near Seattle's Madrona Park. The aircraft was at 1,200 feet, five miles from Boeing Field, and witnesses said it appeared to be flying normally as it crossed the shoreline. Then they heard an explosion they described as sounding like a loud backfire, and a piece of metal fell from the plane. It was 12:25 p.m.
A Harrowing Flight
The airplane began rapidly losing altitude. At Boeing, tower operators heard the radioman tell Allen over an open microphone, "Allen, better get this thing down in a hurry. The wing spar is burning badly" ("Eddie Allen and the B-29"). The plane flew over the eastern neighborhoods of Seattle, shedding parts as it went -- burned hose clamps, part of a de-icer valve, and instrumentation tubing were later discovered on the ground along its path. At the same time the fire was spreading with astonishing rapidity, and smoke and flames began pouring into the fuselage. As the aircraft passed above First Hill at perhaps 250 feet, horrified witnesses saw three men jump out. They were far too low for their parachutes to open and died on impact. Burns and smoke on their bodies confirmed how severe the blaze had become in less than one minute.
Some witnesses thought the airplane was out of control because Allen was erratically wagging its wings, but he was doing this to try to keep the smoke and flames out of the cabin and force them to stream behind the plane. As it crossed over Yesler Terrace, the bomber was visibly trailing smoke. Witnesses said that part of the left wing's leading edge was missing between the Nos. 1 and 2 engines as the plane passed over. "Have fire equipment ready. Am coming in with a wing on fire," reported the radioman ("Eddie Allen and the B-29"). At Boeing, a ground crew quickly prepared for an emergency landing.
Though some witnesses said that the airplane next flew over Elliott Bay and then made a U-turn, this was contradicted by other witnesses, who said it turned south as it approached the Smith Tower. Other accident reports also state that the plane turned south, which was the most direct route to Boeing Field. Struggling to regain altitude but instead continuing to lose it, the aircraft flew toward Boeing. As it crossed S Walker Street near Airport Way it struck a power line, short-circuiting a crosstown transmission line, which caused a large explosion at City Light's substation on E 75th Street, eight miles away. The Frye Packing Company was now just below and in front of the plane. Boeing, and some witnesses, later said they believed Allen was going to attempt to make a crash landing in a marsh on the other side of the building. Instead, the plane pancaked into the northwestern corner of the structure and exploded.
Three miles away, the lights flickered in the Boeing tower control room, then switched to backup power. The tower crew had been in constant contact with the aircraft, but now the radio went silent. On the runway, the ground crew heard the explosion in the distance. It was 12:26 p.m.
The sturdy, five-story brick building that housed the Frye Packing Company erupted in flames, which were fed by more than 5,000 pounds of fuel from the airplane. Some who had not seen the plane but only heard the explosion at first thought it was a Japanese attack. Firemen and police converged on the plant, as did soldiers and sailors; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer estimated between 300 and 400 men formed a fire line around the building and assisted the firemen and police as best they could. A Catholic priest, Father Torence Cromin of St. George's Church, crawled on his hands and knees into the building behind the firefighters and administered last rites to as many victims as he found.
First responders faced a daunting task. Concrete blocks as large as cars, as well as large timbers, had collapsed into the structure. The damage was so severe that the first men on the scene used acetylene torches to cut a path through the debris. The brunt of the impact was in the slaughtering room, and it killed 80 hogs outright. Others were burned so badly and were in such agony that firefighters and others quickly dispatched them. Some who first responded commented on the macabre scene of hogs, and a few sheep, who could be heard screaming and squealing over the din.
There were dramatic rescues. A series of them involved a crew of nine Army servicemen, eight of them boxers. They were headed to Civic Auditorium to be weighed in for the Pacific Northwest Service Boxing Championship when they saw the crash. They stopped and raced into the destroyed, burning building to help. One soldier, Sam Morris, singlehandedly saved four Frye workers. The 205-pound Morris carried two men out of the building, then climbed onto the second-story roof of one section of the structure and coaxed two more who were trapped above him to jump into his arms. He caught one and sufficiently broke the other's fall to enable him to land safely. Five of the servicemen, including Morris, were credited with saving 10 lives in the plant that day. In April, they each received the Soldier's Medal, the highest award given by the Army for heroism displayed while not in combat. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) travelled to Seattle to present the men with their medals in a ceremony on the County-City Building lawn. Four of the five soldiers, all privates, were Black; their commanding officer also received a medal.
It took six days to recover all the bodies from the wreckage. The final death toll was 32, which included a firefighter, Luther Bonner (1920-1943), who died fighting the fire early on the morning after the accident. But if there was any silver lining to the casualty count, it was that the accident happened during the lunch hour, which ended at 12:30 p.m. -- four minutes after the crash -- for employees who worked in the slaughtering room. Had the accident occurred a few minutes later, the casualty count would have been even higher.
The investigation found that the second fire in Engine No. 1, which eventually doomed the plane, was likely caused by the rupture of a supply fuel line. Though the engine had been shut off, the fuel came into contact with other engine components that had become hot from the flight and ignited. This led to the explosion and energized the fire, while air flowing under the airplane's leading-edge wing slats further fanned the flames. Boeing subsequently made modifications to the fuel system as well as other engine parts, and though it took time, it worked. The B-29 bomber is created for helping turn the tide of the war against Japan, and it was a B-29 that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki in August 1945, hastening the end of World War II.