On UW Tacoma's revamped campus, remembering a century-old fatal fire

There were early signs that a downtown fire 100 years ago could prove nasty. There was the highly combustible nature...

There were early signs that a downtown fire 100 years ago could prove nasty.
There was the highly combustible nature of a swirling inferno in a warehouse filled with upholstered, highly flammable furniture.
There was the location of the blaze: the fifth floor of a building which firefighters could barely reach with their ladders.
And there was the story of one engine company en route to the fire, its wagon pulled by horses. The vehicle toppled over and tossed its firefighters when wagon wheels got caught in downtown streetcar tracks.
All of these omens pointed to a single, fatal event: the five-story plunge of 32-year-old Tacoma Fire Lt. George Hill. Hill died Feb. 24, 1908, fighting the inferno. Five other firefighters were injured, and six employees of Davis Smith & Co., occupants of the building, were severely burned. The fire caused $47,000 in damage. It’s a day few Tacoma firefighters and historians will soon forget.
Yesterday afternoon, dozens gathered at the former site, which has since been renovated into the University of Washington Tacoma’s Garretson Woodruff Pratt Building. The meeting marked the anniversary, and included a bagpipe performance of “Amazing Grace” by the Tacoma Fire Department’s honor guard. “Firefighters today take advantage of the modern technologies available,” said Tacoma Fire Chief Ron Stephens. At the time, engine companies used wagons equipped with steam engines and ladders to respond to fires. “To be on a ladder five stories up, and on a hill, is amazing. We pale in comparison to what firefighters faced 100 years ago.”
Historian and UW Tacoma lecturer Michael Sullivan recalled the event. According to Sullivan, employees of Davis Smith & Co., which occupied the building, spotted blue sparks shooting out from the electrical wires on the fifth floor. The sparks ignited the furniture. The blaze quickly consumed the building’s top floor.
Hill was the first one up the ladder. He climbed onto the building’s ledge and entered the building. A combination of flames, heat, and smoke forced Hill to retreat. As he reached for the ladder, Hill lost his balance and fell to the street below. Still alive, he was carried to the train station across the street, but passed away moments later. Three days later, thousands of people lined St. Helens Avenue to watch Lt. Hill’s funeral procession.
“It’s a tragedy what happened,” said Sullivan. “It would be a greater tragedy that we would completely forget it.”
Today, the building is home to UW Tacoma classrooms, student services, faculty and administrative offices. During the ceremony, UW staff unveiled a new historic photo display that will be permanently installed on the third floor.

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