Spectacular arson fire destroys Pacific Trail Sportswear's factory and headquarters in Seattle on March 1, 1969.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 2/22/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1188

On March 1, 1969, an arson fire destroys the  Pacific Trail Sportswear headquarters and factory on 8th Avenue N in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. The blaze is first reported at 7:36 p.m., and up to 150 firefighters will struggle for almost two hours to bring it under control. At its peak, the fire shoots flames more than 100 feet into the air and burns through electrical lines, cutting power in the immediate area and temporarily knocking KING TV off the air. Several nearby businesses are also damaged.  It is the largest arson fire in Seattle's history up to that time. The crime remains unsolved until December 1970, when a former Pacific Trail employee, Daryl B. Root, is charged with setting the fire. Root is later convicted and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. There are only two minor injuries from the blaze, and no loss of life. Pacific Trail has additional manufacturing facilities in other cities and will recover from the loss and go on to prosper.

A Local Brand

The Seattle factory and home offices  of Pacific Trail Sportswear were located at 421 8th Avenue N in the flatland south of Lake Union and east of the Seattle Center. At the time of the fire the company employed approximately 150 men and women at the Seattle plant, where they manufactured its popular lines of outerware, including parkas and ski clothing.

Lowery "Larry" C. Mounger Sr. (1908-1981) founded the company in Seattle in 1946, setting up shop in the same building that would be  destroyed by fire 23 years later. He was a recent graduate of the University of Washington and had been working as a salesman of men's clothing in a department store in downtown Seattle.  Mounger anticipated a pent-up demand for  mens' and boys' outdoor wear as U.S. military personnel returned home after World War II, and he would eventually be proved right. But at first, with just six employees and six sewing machines and making jackets in only two designs, the company struggled. Every day, Mounger would personally inspect and press each new jacket, stuff a few under his arm, and head downtown to find stores that would  agree to take them.

Mounger had to mortgage the family home to keep the factory doors open in those early days. Looking back after the fire he summed up that time with the simple statement, "We were really broke" ("Fire-Struck Firm to Be 'Out' Here for 60 Days"). But success was not too long in coming, and over the years the company grew to become one of the most respected American brand names in outerwear. In 1969 (it is unclear if this occurred before or after the fire) Pacific Trail broadened its product line to include women's and girls' outdoor clothing, which proved to be popular additions and brought greater success. Throughout this time the company's headquarters stayed in the same city and even the same building where it had started, although the greater part of its manufacturing took place at other locations.

Up in Flames

In  the early evening of March 1, 1969, someone broke into the Pacific Trail plant, rifled a fireproof file cabinet, and then set the place on fire, to spectacular effect. By the time firefighters arrived at about 7:45 p.m. the entire building was ablaze, with flames shooting from its windows and leaping 100 feet into the air from its roof. The Seattle Times described the scene:

"The fire apparently started in the north side of the two-story building and spread furiously throughout the structure.

"At one point about 100 spectators fled as a flash of fire shot from a delivery entrance at the east side of the building.

"The flames came from the building like a giant torch, shooting about 75 feet across Eighth Avenue N. No one was injured in that burst of fire" ("150 Men, 15 Trucks Battle Flames at Apparel Plant").

By 8 p.m. the building was "completely enveloped in flames" ("150 Men, 15 Trucks Battle Flames at Apparel Plant"). The synthetic materials used in the manufacture of the company's products generated huge billows of acrid black smoke that were visible throughout much of the city. Eventually, up to 500 spectators came to see the spectacle, causing traffic jams on surrounding streets. It was reported that heat from the fire could be felt from a block away.  Power lines were downed, and KING TV, whose studios were located nearby, was knocked temporarily off the air. Before the blaze was brought under control, every available firefighter in the Seattle department was on the scene. Two of these, W. R. Von Moos and E. J. Vocinovich, were treated at Seattle General Hospital for minor injuries.

To get at the heart of the blaze, firefighters poured water on the building from adjacent rooftops as well as from street level. Several building on the same block as the Pacific Trail facility suffered damage to their exterior walls and roofs, and at least one also incurred a loss of inventory to water damage. The businesses affected included City Electric & Fixture Company, at 433 8th Avenue N;  Allied Floor & Acoustics Inc., at 416 Dexter Avenue N; E. J. Towle Company, at 406-410 Dexter Avenue N; and the Oil Heat Institute of Washington, at 400 Dexter Avenue N. The McPherson Furnace & Equipment Company, which occupied space in the south portion of the Pacific Trail building, suffered severe damage, but an employee, assisted by fire department personnel, managed to rescue the company's business records from the flames.

Sifting Through the Ashes

The fire was largely brought under control by about 9:15 p.m., and as soon as the embers cooled fire investigators got to work. On March 2, Seattle Fire Chief Gordon Vickery (1920-1996) told reporters that initial results indicated that the fire was not intentionally set:

"This is the most expensive fire we've had since the Seattle Cedar Mill file in 1958 ... . We've pinpointed the origin to the ladies lounge in Pacific Trail Sportswear. It started, we think, either through carelessness with a cigarette or some electrical fault" ("Blaze over $ Million").

But as investigators dug deeper they found that there were multiple ignition points and traces of an accelerant. Glenn Mounger, son of the company's founder, came upon an empty gasoline can while rummaging through the wreckage the day after the blaze, and it did not belong to the company. Chief Vickery soon revised his opinion, and on March 3 told the press that "This is undoubtedly the largest arson fire in the history of Seattle" ("$1.7 Million Blaze Arson, Says Chief"). In addition to the use of accelerants, there were signs of an unsuccessful attempt to crack a safe, and the arsonist had set one of the  fires in the McPherson Furnace & Equipment offices elsewhere in the same building.

There didn't seem to be any obvious motive for the crime. The business treated its employees well and had no history of labor or racial unrest. At the time of the fire, company president Larry Mounger Sr. told the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

"I'm a fellow who loves anybody. We've had no disagreements with anyone. Ours is a regular League of Nations. We have Japanese, Chinese, Negroes, you name it" ("$1.7 Million Blaze Arson, Says Chief").

At first it seemed that the case might be quickly solved. On Saturday, March 25, 1969, someone set several fires in the Oxford Hotel in downtown Seattle, starting a blaze that killed three young children from Kodiak, Alaska, and seriously injured two men. At the time, witnesses provided "identical descriptions" of a suspect in both the hotel fire and that at the Pacific Trail facility ("Hotel Arsonist May Have Set Other Recent Fires").

On March 20 the Seattle Police Department announced the arrest of a middle-aged man in connection with the fatal hotel fire, and there was additional speculation in the press that the same man may have been responsible for the Pacific Trail blaze. However, these suspicions were not borne out, and the Pacific Trail investigation ground on for what would be nearly two years.

Although it was by far the biggest, the Pacific Trail fire was not the only one to hit Seattle in March 1969. That month saw not only the largest arson fire in the city's history to date, but also set a record for the highest monetary loss due to fires of any month on record. On May 1, 1969, the fire department reported fire damages for the previous March totaling $2,135,343, of which $2,010,150 (94 percent) was due to arson. Of these, the largest loss by far was occasioned by the Pacific Trail fire, the cost of which was estimated at $1,923,200. This clearly skewed the results, but the March 1969 fire loss in Seattle actually exceeded all but three of the city's previous annual fire-loss totals.

A Long But Successful Investigation

After the hotel-fire suspect was cleared of involvement in the Pacific Trail blaze, the investigation seemed to bog down. In July 1969 the company announced a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a suspect or suspects. The reward was made public in boxed advertisements in both of the city's daily newspapers, but it drew no good leads.

Finally, on November 17, 1970, a suspect was arrested. Daryl B. Root, a 27-year-old resident of Marysville who was employed by Pacific Trail at the time of the fire, was charged with second-degree arson on November 25, 1971, and was arraigned on December 1 in King County Superior Court before Judge Stanley C. Soderland. Prosecutors alleged that Root was intoxicated when he broke into the building looking for money with which to buy liquor. After finding only $5, Root was said to have become "disgruntled," and to have set fire to the building in four different locations ("Innocent Plea Entered in Blaze"). Root's attorney, William H. Mullen, asked that a plea not be entered until Root had a psychiatric  evaluation. The court entered a provisional plea of not guilty on his behalf pending the outcome of such an examination.

Root was evidently determined to be legally sane and was convicted of arson on February 2, 1971, by King County Superior Court Judge Robert M. Elston, sitting without a jury. On March 22, just more than two years after he set the destructive fire, Root was sentenced by Elston to up to 10 years in prison. The King County assistant chief deputy prosecutor, Patricia G. Harber, recommended that the State Board of Prison Terms and Parole set a minimum term of two years.

The Company Bounces Back

As devastating as the fire was, the survival of Pacific Trial Sportswear was never in doubt. The company had larger manufacturing plants, one in Spokane and two in Utah, that produced about 85 percent of its product line. For a short time after the fire, the head office of the company was in the Mounger family home in Magnolia, but within weeks Pacific Trail had leased temporary space at 1531 Summit Avenue on Seattle's Capitol Hill. And Larry Mounger Sr., who had guided the company through its early struggles, remained upbeat:

"We're not going to desert Seattle, no matter what. We're trying to get office space today to take care of the paperwork, make clothing patterns and send orders to our contractors … . It will take two or three months to receive the machinery we'll need for a new plant" ("Fire-Struck Firm to Be 'Out' Here for 60 Days"). 

Mounger also pledged that the Seattle plant's 150 workers would be paid during what he termed an interim "vacation." And he seemed more mystified than angry at the loss:

"I don't mind if someone wants to steal a few jackets or some money -- even though we don't keep money at the plant -- but why would they want to burn the place down?

"It's hard to believe ... . Everything's insured, but something like this is still pretty upsetting" ("Fire-Struck Firm to Be 'Out' Here for 60 Days"). 

Pacific Trail Sportswear stayed in the control of the Mounger family until 1993 when, during the "merger and acquisition" frenzy of the 1990s, it was sold to a Chicago investment company, GKH Retailing Inc. A year later, GKH merged Pacific Trail with another American clothing manufacturer,  London Fog. In 2006, London Fog went  into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and as part of its restructuring the Pacific Trail brand was sold to competitor Columbia Sportswear for $20.4 million. As of 2012, Columbia continued to market outerwear under the respected Pacific Trail name.


Sources:

"150 Men, 15 Trucks Battle Flames at Apparel Plant," The Seattle Times, March 2, 1969, p. 8; "Spectacle in Night: Fireballs, Flames," Ibid., March 2, 1969, p. B; "Fire Destroys Clothing Firm," Ibid., March 2, 1969, p. 1; "Fire-Struck Firm to Be 'Out' Here for 60 Days," Ibid., March 3, 1969 p. 4; "March Fire Losses Set Record," Ibid., May 1, 1969, p. 35; "Firm Offers Reward in Arson Case," Ibid., July 24, 1969, p. 67; "Hotel Arsonist May Have Set Other Recent Fires, " Ibid., March 16, 1969, p. 9; "Hotel Arson Suspect Arrested," Ibid., March 20, 1969, p. 1; "Fire Comeback: Pacific Trail Makes Jackets Again," Ibid., March 20, 1969, p. 73; "Firm Offers Reward in Arson Case," Ibid., July 24, 1969, p. 68; "Innocent Plea Entered in Blaze," Ibid., December 1, 1970, p. 28; "Ex-Employe Convicted of Pacific Trail Arson Fire," Ibid., February 3, 1971, p. 68; "$1.7  Million Blaze Arson, Says Chief," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 3, 1969, p. 1; "Blaze Over $ Million," Ibid., March 3, 1969, p. 1; "London Fog Industries, Inc.," Funding Universe website accessed February 20, 2011 (http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/London-Fog-Industries-Inc-Company-History.html).
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.


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