On October 21, 1964, fire breaks out on the end of Repair Pier 7 at the Todd Pacific Shipyards repair facility on Harbor Island in Seattle. Endangered are two United States Navy vessels, the USS Marshall and the USS Toucan, and the Washington State ferry Kalakala. Some 300 firefighters, shipyard workers, and sailors battle the blaze for more than four hours before bringing it under control. It is the worst fire to hit the Seattle waterfront since the fire that destroyed the Grand Trunk Pacific dock on July 30, 1914.
The Shipyard and Its Fire
The Todd Pacific Shipyards Corporation is located at 1801 16th Avenue SW 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, is (2010) the largest private shipyard in the Pacific Northwest, employing more than 750 workers.
At approximately 2:40 p.m. on Wednesday, October 21, 1964, a small fire started in the substructure near the outer end of Todd’s Repair Pier 7 where earlier in the day welding with acetylene torches was being done on sheet-metal ducts. An on-shore wind stoked the fire and it spread rapidly toward the shore. A shipyard worker who spotted smoke said: “I saw this small fire and reached for a water hose. By the time I looked at the fire again, it was too big for the hose. I ran to turn in the alarm” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
Tough and Extremely Dangerous
The first alarm was transmitted to the Seattle Fire Department (SFD) at 2:42 p.m. Four engine companies and a battalion chief were dispatched to the scene but had to immediately withdraw when they discovered the fire spread under the pier behind them. Meanwhile, Seattle Fire Department fireboats Duwamish and Alki got underway from Fire Station No. 5, located on the Seattle waterfront at the foot of Madison Street, and headed toward Harbor Island.
The battalion chief sent in a second alarm at 2:47 p.m. Four more engine companies, a ladder company and a second battalion chief were dispatched to the shipyard. Fueled by creosote and oil-soaked timbers, the fire soon engulfed Repair Pier 7 and quickly spread to the east wing-wall of Drydock No. 2, where the Navy destroyer USS Marshall (DD-676) was sitting high and dry, undergoing a $300,000 overhaul. The flames spread so rapidly the destroyer’s captain, Commander J. F. Stanfil Jr., ordered his 108 crewmen to abandon ship and join the firefighters and shipyard workers battling the fire.
At 3:09 p.m., a third alarm was transmitted and four engine companies and a ladder company were dispatched to Todd Shipyards. Seattle Fire Chief Gordon F. Vickery (1920-1996) and Assistant Fire Chief Frank R. Hanson arrived at shipyard to assess the situation. The fire continued to spread rapidly and at 3:56 p.m., Chief Vickery sent in a fourth alarm, requesting four more engine companies and another ladder company. King County Fire District No. 11 (North Highline) and District No. 20 (Bryn Mawr-Skyway), under a new mutual-assistance agreement, dispatched engine companies to cover Seattle fire districts left unprotected.
The Navy mine sweeper USS Toucan (AM/MSF-387) was moored alongside Repair Pier 7, undergoing a $900,000 conversion into a patrol vessel for the Republic of China (Taiwan), when the fire broke out. As flames raced toward them, a shipyard testing crew aboard the vessel cast off the mooring lines and moved her away from the inferno. The Foss Maritime Company tugboat Carol Foss managed to get a hawser aboard the Toucan and towed her through the heat and smoke to a safe berth at another Todd pier. The Carol Foss returned to the area and moved a large gasoline barge, moored at the Mobil Oil Company pier, 1711 13th Avenue SW, immediately east of the shipyard, out of harms way.
The Washington State ferry Kalakala was undergoing repairs in Drydock No. 1, moored on the west side of Drydock No. 2, which was now on fire. While the fireboats Duwamish and Alki provided protection with saltwater spray, shipyard crews cut the lines and connections, floated the dry dock and two Foss tugboats moved it into the open waters of Elliott Bay. This enabled the Duwamish and the Foss tug Lummi Bay (renamed Lorna Foss) to move into the empty slip and pump thousands of gallons-per-minute of saltwater onto the inferno with their monitors (water canons).
Consideration was given to submerging Drydock No. 2 to extinguish the fire in the east wing-wall, but the USS Marshall had several hull plates removed in the overhaul and would have been in danger of sinking. There was also major concern that the 8,500-ton wooden dry dock, valued at $2 million, could capsize, taking the destroyer down with it. The wing-wall fire was finally contained when firefighters were lowered with ropes into the dry dock and extinguished the flames with hose lines.
The main fire on Repair Pier 7 was brought under control in approximately four hours, however, smoldering hot spots in the creosoted timbers beneath the pier proved exceedingly stubborn. Shipyard workers used jackhammers to rip sections of thick blacktop off the pier, and then with chain saws cut a large access hole in the decking to enable hose lines to reach the substructure. Firefighters on rafts and in small boats carried hose lines underneath the pier and doused the lingering flames.
The fire was officially declared “tapped out” at 9:31 p.m., after almost seven hours of grueling, dangerous work. Twelve firefighters and 15 shipyard workers suffered varying degrees of injuries and smoke inhalation, and three were hospitalized. Fortunately there were no fatalities. Chief Vickery and Seattle Fire Marshal Stephen H. MacPherson were knocked to the ground by a stream of water from one of the fireboat monitors. Although Chief Vickery lacerated his knee in the mishap, he and MacPherson stayed on the job directing firefighting efforts.
Four engine companies and one ladder company stayed at the shipyard throughout the night to conduct mopping-up operations and prevent the fire from rekindling. The fire, believed to have started in the creosoted timbers beneath the pier, was blamed on sparks from a welder’s torch although the welders had been gone for some time before the fire broke out. Damage to the Todd Pacific Shipyards repair facility was estimated to be $1 million.
For the Seattle Fire Department, the Todd Pacific Shipyard fire was a rare four-alarm response, ultimately involving 16 engine companies, three ladder companies, two fireboats and more than 175 firefighters. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard sent three 40-foot patrol boats and two cutters to Harbor Island, Foss Maritime Company dispatched all available harbor tugs to render assistance, several privately owned vessels helped transport men and equipment, and two engine companies were dispatched from King County to protect Seattle. Some 30 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. “I think this was one of the toughest fires the city has ever had. Perhaps it wasn’t the most spectacular, but it was tough and extremely dangerous,” said Chief Vickery (The Seattle Times).
Damage and Aftermath
Other than for water and large areas of scorched paint, the USS Marshall was undamaged. There was, however, major damage to components and electrical equipment from the Marshall and Toucan which were being repaired in shops on Pier 7. After being overhauled, 2050-ton Fletcher-class destroyer set sail for Tacoma to become a Naval Reserve training ship. The USS Marshall, commissioned in October 1943, was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in July 1969 and sold for scrapping in 1970.
After refitting, the USS Toucan, a 890-ton Auk-class minesweeper, built in 1944, was transferred to the Taiwanese Navy in December 1964. The vessel, renamed the Chien Men (PCE-45), was sunk by the Communist Chinese Navy in the Formosa Strait (or Taiwan Strait) on August 6, 1965.
The ferry Kalakala was taken out of service in August 1967 and auctioned off in October for $101,551. The ferry was towed to Alaska for use as a floating fish processing plant and in 1972 became a fish cannery on Kodiak Island. The Kalakala returned to Puget Sound in 1998 and is presently moored at Hylebos Creek Waterway, 1801 Taylor Way in Tacoma, awaiting renovation scheduled for 2010. The Kalakala is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (No. 06000177), administered by the National Park Service.
Henry R. Bass Jr., age 32, SFD Engine Company No. 10, smoke inhalation.
Jack Rutherford, age 25, SFD Engine Company No. 6, back injury.
Harold Skindlo, age 54, dock worker, Todd Pacific Shipyards, smoke inhalation.