Sizzling Seattle

15th April 2005 at 01:00
If you ever wanted an example of a "catalogue of disasters", then look no further. The Great Seattle Fire is it. It began on a warm June afternoon in 1889. John Back was heating glue on a stove in a cabinet-makers' shop in the centre of the Pacific coast town. The pot boiled over and caught fire. The unfortunate 24-year-old then did something rather silly. Something that has seen him labelled for posterity as an "ignorant Swede" and "a thick-set blond of mediocre intelligence".

He poured water on the flames. Burning glue instantly fountained all over the shop. The floor, covered in turpentine and wood shavings, caught fire. The room filled with smoke and the carpenters ran. The fire brigade arrived half an hour later, and the blaze was already out of control. It spread to a liquor store, which exploded, fuelling the flames with alcohol until the entire block was alight.

Unfortunately for Seattle, the stingy private fire service had only provided hydrants on every other street. Even worse, many of the water pipes were too small and made out of hollowed-out logs - a rather surprising choice of material for a fire brigade. Unsurprisingly, several of them were burnt in the blaze.

Then, as more firefighters joined the struggle, the pressure dropped so much that their hoses stopped working. They tried to pump water from the sea, but the tide was out and the hoses were too short to reach the waves.

The locals did not cover themselves in glory either. Instead of helping the volunteer force, they harangued them, driving many to quit after the blaze.

The flames did not die down until 3am. When the sun penetrated the smoke, it was clear that 120 acres of the city had been lost. Thousands lost their homes and jobs, though no one was reported to have died. Losses were estimated at $10-20 million. On the bright side, a new, better - and largely brick - Seattle quickly rose from the ashes. But one man was not around to enjoy it. John Back had left town.

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