On January 31, 1943, fire sweeps through the Lake Forest Sanitarium, a rest home in northern King County. The blaze kills 32 of the residence's 49 elderly and disabled tenants, and, in numbers of fatalities, is the worst fire in the county's history. The tragedy sparks immediate legislation designed to address the lack of safety and sanitation inspections in many of the state's rest homes, and leads to the adoption of King County's first rural fire code less than three months after the fire.
For much of the twentieth century, options for senior citizens unable to care for themselves were far more limited than they are now. If they lacked resources or someone able to take care of them, the alternative was what was often referred to as a rest home, as well as a few other euphemisms. These homes were not today's mostly pleasant senior centers offering varying levels of amenities and care. A 1951 Seattle Times article describes a typical rest home in the county during the mid-twentieth century:
"If there is such a thing as a typical nursing home, it is a two-story frame building, 40 to 60 years of age, with eight to 12 rooms and about three bathrooms. It houses 20 to 30 partly ambulatory patients [though some house considerably more] in a space originally occupied by a family of eight or ten.
"Most of the bedrooms have three or four or even six beds where there once was one. But there are beds in use in every other room of the house, too, excepting the kitchen ... patients in such homes are tucked into small alcoves or rooms once used for pantries ...
"It is hard to imagine any jail cell giving its occupants less real living space ("Jury's Verdict ...").
Initially, there was little regulation of such homes. And though there was a fire code in effect in Seattle and other cities by the 1940s, there was not one in unincorporated King County. Further, county commissioners could not enact a fire code without state legislation authorizing it. This had raised alarm bells by 1943, because there was a growing recognition that many of the county's rural rest homes (as well as its taverns and restaurants) were almost completely bereft of fire protection and were tragedies waiting to happen.
A Tragic Fire
Such a tragedy happened in the early afternoon of Sunday, January 31, 1943, at the Lake Forest Sanitarium in rural King County, a house located on the southeast corner of 15th Avenue NE and NE 172nd Street in what today is part of the city of Shoreline. The building had originally been a log cabin, which subsequently had been modified and expanded until it was an L-shaped frame structure. It had a ground floor basement as well as two floors. The basement was in the original building and housed its oil heater, and there was a fuel drum next to it. The house had an additional two-story wing, one of the subsequent modifications to the structure that gave it its L-shape. The only exit from the wing passed through the original building, and the route passed near the short flight of stairs that led to the heater.
Six days before the calamity, a minor fire had broken out near the heater when a nurse spilled oil while filling the adjacent drum. Marjorie Westberg, the rest home's proprietor, recognized the hazard and decided to move the tank. She hired Maurice Baird, a postal clerk who did plumbing on the side, to put it outside and connect it to the heater with a pipe. Baird accomplished the job with little trouble, and afterward he struck a match to light the heater. The match head flew off and landed inside the machine's shell on some oily lint, which caught fire. Baird and the two staff members in the building (a nurse and a dishwasher) tried to fight the flames, but they quickly flared out of control.
Some residents who were near the front of the house were able to escape with little trouble. One man was pulled out of a window with his clothes on fire, but he survived. However, many residents never had a chance. Several wheelchair-bound patients attempting to flee were stymied by doors that swung into the burning building; when firefighters arrived, they found two of the exits blocked by their remains. It was even worse in the wing, where its lone exit -- into the main structure -- was blocked by flames before many had a chance to react. Some died in their beds, and when part of the second floor collapsed into the first floor, beds and bodies followed.
Thirty victims died within minutes, and two more died that evening. Seventeen residents of the home survived. After the fire had been extinguished, there was approximately a foot of water on the first floor of the ruined wing. Deputy Coroner Otto Mittelstadt picked up a nurse and carried her through the carnage while she identified the victims. The bodies were subsequently taken behind the ruins where, despite the sunny day, there were large swaths of snow on the ground from storms earlier in the month. The covered remains were laid out in rows in the snow until they could be transported, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a picture of the sad scene the next day.
The horrific story galvanized the legislature into action. Five days after the fire, the state senate passed what became known as the "place of refuge" bill, requiring a license for any home for the elderly, children, or disabled. As a condition to receiving a license, the establishment was required to pass an inspection by both a health officer and a fire inspector. The legislation also gave county commissioners authority to enact fire protection laws. The house passed the bill a month later, and Governor Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) signed it on March 9.
King County adopted its rural fire code a month later, on April 19. Work on the 35 county rest homes began almost immediately, and on May 31, 1944, 16 months after the fire, The Seattle Times reported that all of them had complied with the new regulations. New doors had been installed that swung out from a hall or a building, making exiting easier. Extra doors had been added where needed, and fire escapes had been built where necessary.