by Candace Brown
People remember late Fire Chief Leland “Lee” Madson as a fine man—intelligent, progressive, a visionary. One of his visions, however, worried him. Because of it, he would also be remembered as the man who bought the fire truck that fell off the train.
Madson joined the fire service in 1948 as one of the original volunteers at the Angle Lake Fire Station in unincorporated King County, Washington. Ten years later he became the first career firefighter there, a paid chief. King County Fire District No. 24, as it was known then, served the rapidly growing area near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, south of Seattle. Madson correctly envisioned numerous highrise buildings growing up along what was called “SeaTac Strip,” and by 1968, multi-story hotels had begun to appear. If one were to catch fire, Madson would need an aerial ladder truck.
“He was responsible for buying fire equipment,” said his son, Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority emergency manager, Chief John Madson. “First he bought a 1959 Crown, then the 1964 Mack C9-5, the first diesel fire engine this side of the Mississippi. My dad went to the fire commission requesting a ladder truck, and they said, ‘We can’t afford it.’”
In March 1971, Lee Madson’s wish suddenly became a possibility in the form of a brand new 1971 American LaFrance 900 Series tractor-drawn aerial. It would have been perfect, if not for a train wreck.
“It was being shipped from the factory in Elmira, New York, headed to the Tacoma [Washington] Fire Dept.,” John Madson said. “On the way out, the train derailed. The ladder truck was on a railcar that rolled a couple of times and totaled the truck. My dad got wind of the fact that they were going to be auctioning off a damaged ladder truck as scrap.”
Madson could not wait for the next meeting of the commissioners. He knew he could salvage the truck. An experienced auto body repairman, he owned Madson’s Auto Shop, right across the street from the fire station. After he became a full-time fire chief, his wife, Dora Madson, ran the business.
“He had to get on this auction pretty quickly,” John Madson said. “I think he called the chairman of the board, who was in favor of it. [There was no time for the board to approve the purchase] so my dad put out the money.”
Figures quoted for that amount range from $10,000 to $15,000. The total cost, including restoration, did not exceed $25,000, which was about 25 percent of market value.
Career firefighter Dan Zorns, Madson’s friend and fellow department member, is a highly skilled mechanic, now retired. Although many people helped with the restoration, Zorns and the late Fire Marshal Nick Civarra helped significantly.
“I didn’t know anything about the truck being wrecked prior to Lee coming in and talking about it,” Zorns said. “It was in Auburn, on a rail car. That’s where I first saw it. I don’t recall how I felt other than, ‘Oh my Gosh. There’s a lot of work there.’”
The lower driver-side front corner of the canopy-style enclosed cab appeared to have taken the initial impact. Then the truck rolled. The entire roof crumpled. Its dome light was crushed and pressed over to one side. Windows broke. Powerful forces twisted the tractor’s frame rails and then moved onward. The diamond plate around the turntable was distorted. The trailer also twisted in the crash, its frame rail cracking, and the 100-foot aerial ladder suffering badly.
“We didn’t look it over real well down there, because Lee had already bought the truck,” Zorns said. “He bought it with his own personal money, and he offered it to the commissioners for what he paid for it, no more. I found out he could have turned around and sold just the engine and transmission for $15,000 within a couple days.”
Pete’s Towing arrived with a huge wrecker. Zorns helped unload the truck from the train car and got the front end on the tow truck. For the trip of more than a dozen miles back to the fire station, Zorns operated the tiller. The restoration would be done at the station by the Angle Lake firefighters themselves. With Madson’s participation and advice, plus a little outside help, they worked on it as time allowed.
Separating the tractor from the trailer came first. Next, Zorns pulled and salvaged the tractor’s electrical system, marking wires as he went along. The next step was to unbolt the destroyed cab for removal. Madson’s good friend, King County Water District 75 Commissioner Jerry Harris, used chains and a backhoe to lift off the cab. Everything else had been done by what Zorns called “manpower.” Then came the time to install the new frame rails Lee Madson had ordered. Everything had to be right.
“It was quite a job,” Zorns said. “I set two new frame rails up on a pair of drums and started measuring. I took crossmembers that were good out of the other stuff and I put them up there, measuring and squaring it and drilling. Lee was there, too. If there were questions, he was very knowledgeable.”
After removing the cab, the men unbolted and set aside the engine and transmission. A 2-cycle, Detroit Diesel 8V-71 V-8 powered the truck. Each cylinder displaced 71 cubic inches. It was paired with an Allison 6-speed “Select-O-Matic” automatic transmission. Because the powertrain had escaped damage, it needed no repairs.
Replacing the cab gave Chief Madson an opportunity to customize the truck. All the other trucks at Angle Lake featured the open-cab style he preferred. He ordered a custom cab, in the likeness of a Mack, from Truck Cab Manufacturers in Cincinnati, Ohio. Zorns combined a family vacation to Ohio with taking delivery of the new cab, hauling it home on a rented trailer. After more customization to the cab’s configuration, such as the use of Mack mirrors and the Mack-style of the front bumper and lower grilles, the ALF began to resemble its competitor.
“The headlights were a spare pair from our auto body shop next door,” John Madson said. “I heard they were from a 1968 Chevrolet El Camino! There was not much of a budget for this restoration and any good spare parts were used as needed.”
In Zorns’ opinion, installing the windshield wipers caused more headaches than anything else. On the open cab, of course, there were two sets, one inside, one outside. The new cab came with no holes or guides.
“We had to figure out where the motor’s going to mount, where the arms come through, with what they refer to as ‘transmissions,’ and get all this stuff to work,” he said.
Moving on to the trailer, they enlisted an expert welder to repair the cracked frame rail. Zorns fabricated replacement pieces for a section of the aerial ladder and plug-welded them together. He also spent many days cutting and filing aluminum to repair the turntable.
After nearly three years of work, the Angle Lake Fire Station had one of the first motorized tiller ladder trucks in King County. It served the department well for about 20 years. However, by 1996, it failed the Underwriters Laboratory tests because of a problem with the aerial. The cost to have it rebuilt was estimated at $100,000. The department sold the truck at auction.
Deputy Chief Brian Wiwel, also of the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority, has a particular interest in Angle Lake’s apparatus and history. He, John Madson, and Madson’s brother Mike Madson all joined in 1981 and worked at Angle Lake. Wiwel drove the restored ALF regularly.
“Brian is kind of the historian for the department,” John Madson said of his longtime friend. “He loved that truck, too, and he was sad to see it go. He became the training officer in the ’80s and trained people how to drive it.”
“It was fun to drive,” Wiwel said. “It was relatively quick off the line, very maneuverable. It cornered really nice. It was easy to park, easy to spot, easy to set up. It also carried a lot of equipment. It was just like a giant rolling toolbox.”
Wiwel expressed the essence of the truck’s story: “It was about a person with a vision nobody else had, not only for apparatus for the department, but for the future of the area. It was about how he persisted and how a group of individuals, with just some pretty basic tools and equipment, spent a lot of time and effort to create a first-class piece of apparatus.”
Chief Lee Madson left the department in 1974, blind in one eye because of a cinder. He died in 1983. The department placed a plaque on the ladder truck in his memory. Dora Madson kept the auto body shop running for several more years. The former King County Fire District No. 24 Angle Lake station became part of the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority.
As for the famous fire truck that fell off the train, its current whereabouts remain unknown.
Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment is especially grateful to Firefighter Kevin O’Keefe of the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority, who spent many hours scanning old photos, slides, and negatives to make this story possible.