by Candace Brown
Disaster literally came out of the blue on Aug. 13, 1951, in the industrial south side of Seattle, Washington. Moments after a Boeing B-50 Superfortress bomber took off from Boeing Field to test some equipment at about 2:15 p.m., eyewitnesses saw and heard the big bomber laboring to gain altitude. With its nose up, it veered sharply. Its wings angled 90 degrees from the ground as it careened into Beacon Hill.
The 2:18 p.m. crash destroyed the entire north end of the Lester Apartments—a three-story, 50-unit wooden building with about 67 occupants. Many were home at the time. In addition to the three Air Force men and three Boeing Co. employees onboard, five residents of the apartments would die and another dozen or so would suffer serious injury. The mighty bomber, with its 3,500 gallons of high-test gasoline fuel and 300 gallons of oil, had become a bomb itself. It burst into flame on impact after its fateful one-mile flight.
Police from the city’s Georgetown Precinct called in the alarm. At Seattle Fire Dept.’s nearby Engine 13, a 1946 Kenworth pumper’s 1,090ci Hall-Scott engine roared to life. The fire truck designated as Apparatus 155 sped off to face a situation the likes of which its crew had never seen. It arrived first out of 15 fire apparatus (10 of which were Kenworths) plus ambulances, police vehicles, and more. Eyewitness Ted Bell, news director for radio station KRSC, wrote his impressions for United Press International, stating, “The first fire truck was there within 90 seconds.” Associated Press reported, “Occasional bursts of flame drove firemen back as new gas pools would light…” For nearly five hours, the nightmare continued. Crews retrieved one scorched body after another.
Chuck Kahler, assistant chief and head of operations for South King Fire and Rescue, takes a personal interest in accounts of that fire. He and wife Stacy currently own Apparatus 155 and others. They sat at their dining room table during an interview for Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment with historic photos and documents spread all around. A newspaper image of the Lester Apartments fire showed this apparatus in action.
Having worked 46 years in the fire service, Kahler can vividly imagine the tragic scene. He joined the Federal Way (Washington) Fire Dept. in 1970 as a resident volunteer, before becoming a member of the Seattle Fire Dept. in 1972. In 1976, he became a paramedic. Kahler worked all over town before making a gut-wrenching decision.
“All the time in the 1970s, while I was on the career department in Seattle, I volunteered in Federal Way,” he said. “In 1980, I decided to leave Seattle and went out to Federal Way [now South King Fire & Rescue] on the career department when it tripled in size over a period of six months. Since then, I’ve worked my way up through the ranks.”
Kahler remained passionate about Seattle fire history. He and his wife now own six former Seattle apparatus—a 1914 LaFrance Type 12 pumper (the city’s first motorized pumper), three of six Kenworths ordered in 1946, a 1953 Kenworth, and a 1958 Mack. He can give the entire genealogy of each. That of Apparatus 155 is one of the most interesting.
“I know this apparatus went to well over 50 multiple-alarm fires in its history,” Kahler said. “Some of those were high-profile incidents.”
Apparatus 155 was built at the Kenworth plant in Seattle and owned by the city for 55 years. The order of six was Seattle’s first multiple-truck order of Kenworth fire apparatus. It represented a move toward modernization. Only two of Seattle’s previously purchased trucks even had enclosed cabs.
“They placed the order right after World War II, because, like many cities, Seattle’s fleet was basically made up of apparatus from the 1910s and 1920s,” Kahler said. “During the war, nobody got new fire apparatus. In fact, between 1930 and 1946, Seattle purchased only three pieces.”
Not only was this engine built locally, it was built entirely by Kenworth. Later on, Kenworth’s practice was to build the chassis and another company—such as Howard-Cooper in Oregon or Heiser Body Works in Seattle—would build the bodies and outfit them as fire trucks.
“Ordering these Kenworths definitely started a legacy,” Kahler said. “It’s unique that a fire department could order them homegrown, built right here in town. Hale pumps were shipped out from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, and mounted by Kenworth.”
When put into service, Apparatus 155 went to Engine 1 in downtown Seattle. It remained there until a new 1949 apparatus replaced it, and it was then sent to Engine 13, on Beacon Hill. It moved again, to Engines 38, 12, and 21, and then spent a year in reserve. In 1972, the City of Seattle sent Apparatus 155 nearly 100 miles north to Seattle City Light, which had hydroelectric power facilities in the Diablo Dam/Ross Lake area, in Skagit County. In 2001, a fellow collector told Kahler the truck was being sold as surplus.
Together, they went to see it. Even though he had no place to store the engine at the time, Kahler bought it. In November 2001, he and Stacy drove the long distance to bring their prize home. With a square-geared transmission and vacuum-assist brakes, the Kenworth began its trip in snow, which turned to rain as Chuck and Stacy drove south on Interstate 5.
“People don’t realize that, with any semi or big truck, you cannot stop quickly,” Stacy Kahler said. “We didn’t know what the brakes were like or anything. We were driving in this torrential downpour, and this little black compact car cut right in front of us. I was on the passenger side, but I instinctively put my foot on the floor as if I had a brake pedal.”
Instead of finding the brakes, she accidentally discovered and pressed a pedal that activates the truck’s siren.
“It was like rrrrrrrRRRRRRRRrrrrrr, the old fashioned sound, but the car in front of us thought we were going to go right up over the top of him,” she said.
Once at home, Chuck Kahler checked the brakes before anything else. The truck had few mechanical problems. Its original, huge, Hall-Scott Model 400 engine had been replaced with a Detroit Diesel 6-71 in-line engine with turbocharger, for economy and ease of operation.
The Kahlers rubbed out the oxidized paint and had the lettering redone by a professional, who used vintage photos for reference. The interior looked good. The hose bed, however, had been changed to accommodate a water tank much larger than the original. Using dimensions taken from another Seattle fire apparatus of that era, Kahler’s brother-in-law, Ed Ellsworth, did an excellent job of remodeling the bed.
“Having grown up in Seattle and actually having driven rigs like this when I was a recruit firefighter, I knew what they looked like,” Kahler said. “It took us about four years to get the tank out, get the dividers built, get the hard suction and brackets in the right place, and take the time to actually do a three-step process to rub all the paint out.”
Now the old Kenworth looks as close as possible to how it did in 1946. The hose is loaded just the way it used to be, and the Kahlers found period-correct brass nozzles. It is missing a few unobtainable accoutrements, but it still has the original pump.
Working on apparatus has always been a team effort for Chuck and Stacy Kahler, especially when it comes to applying some elbow grease, but they have fun, too. In fact, Apparatus 155 was their “getaway vehicle” when they married. They enjoy going to car shows and answering questions about it. One of the most memorable times came when it was accepted into the Concours d’Elegance at LeMay—America’s Car Museum, in Tacoma, Washington, in 2015.
Kahler grew up hanging around fire stations. He watched the old vehicles as a boy and drove some of them as a young firefighter. Now he looks at them with emotion, thinking of all the people who mentored him. He also ponders what those old engines would say if they could talk.
“They could tell some tremendous stories of the fires they went to, the people who worked on them, the stations they were in,” he said. “After well over half a century, it’s a changed department. The neatest part, to me, is that we’re preserving something you can look back on and say, ‘I remember that.’”
Not everyone does, however. Once, a young man at a show asked him where the crew would ride. Kahler thought to himself, He doesn’t get it.
“He didn’t know that in years past people rode on the outside of these things, on the back, holding on,” Kahler said. “No safety straps, no harnesses. You just held onto the back bar, and away you went. Few people still active in the job today know what that was like.”
Back in 1951, when this engine raced to the Lester Apartments, the firemen held on tight on their way to save lives. Now Kahler hangs onto the Seattle Fire Dept.’s history just as firmly, hoping to save a proud legacy.
Chuck Kahler can be reached by email at email@example.com or by cell phone at 253-261-1079.