Arsonists were blamed for fires next to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, in 1974 and in 1996.
THE ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT was shut down on the afternoon of June 14, 1974, after the six-floor Polson Building (which is still standing) was ignited by an arsonist (apparently).
The first alarm sounded at 1:32 p.m., and firefighting continued until 5:50 p.m.
The Seattle Fire Department keeps good records. Galen Thomaier, the department’s historian as well as curator of the Last Resort Fire Department (an interpretive museum for retired firefighting artifacts), was there that day in 1974, although not on duty. He says he was surprised by the “four throbbing 3½-inch lines (hoses) that were laid across Alaskan Way.” They led to a manifold that distributed both the saltwater from the bay and municipal water from the hydrants. Thomaier followed the hoses to their source, and found the Duwamish, then still referred to as “the world’s most powerful fireboat afloat.”
Near the center of Frank Shaw’s “Then” photo, firefighters wrestle with a 55-foot-long extension ladder, while others are under the viaduct, shooting three streams at the smoking building. The atmosphere of spray gives back a shower on the crew. Sixteen of the day’s firefighting crew wound up in the hospital because of smoke inhalation. There is also falling debris in this mix. Flying embers burned two of the fire’s many uncovered pedestrian gawkers. The single man in the sports coat with a camera dashing across the puddle was, according to Thomaier, “probably media and should not have been there.” Shaw stands as close as allowed.
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Years after the 1974 Polson fire, an investigative reporter with whom internal fire department records were shared concluded a “most plausible theory … that the blaze had been set by pull-tab manufacturers from Chicago who were fighting the Polson Building owner, Benjamin Mayers (of Ace Novelty), for control of the Seattle-area pull-tab gambling market.”
In 1996, another uncaught arsonist torched the Polson’s top two floors — the only two by then not guarded with sprinklers. The principal victims of the 1996 fire were artists. The Polson had become what was described as one of the largest artists’ colonies on the West Coast. When the renters were at first not allowed into the ruins to inventory losses, they joined a protest by painting on the street.