Looking Back: A tragic accident on a summer night in 1953

Photo from the private collection of Patricia (Eisen) Olson

Shown above are some of the volunteer firefighters from Station No. 1, Snohomish County Fire Protection District No. 1, its home base located at Seattle Heights, three miles east of Edmonds. The men were standing beside one of the district’s fire trucks in front of Eisen’s Garage on the northeast corner of today’s 212th Street Southwest and Highway 99. Volunteers at this and the other stations were on round-the-clock call to respond to any alarm in the fire district – answering not only to fire calls, but heart attacks, drownings and any other emergency. The two men on the left appear to be District Fire Chief Clarence Crary (in the light-colored jacket) with Assistant Fire Chief Carl Eisen, next to him.

The accident

Fire Station No. 1 received one of those fire calls late Sunday evening, July 26, 1953 — a routine report of a brush fire burning at Talbot Park near Meadowdale. Answering the call from Station No. 1 were Fire Captain Carl Gohm and six volunteer crew members:  Lt. Ray Meyer, Fred Mahoney, Fred Dolder, Ted Farr, and brothers Dan and Floyd Matthews. Piling onto the department’s 1951 Kenworth fire truck, with Fred Mahoney driving, the seven men headed for Talbot Park.

Pulling away from their Seattle Heights station, the fire truck headed west across Highway 99, and as it raced past Middleton’s Grocery Store at the northwest corner of the intersection, its siren was blasting a warning, as was the flashing red light on the rooftop of the fire truck. One-half mile west of the highway, the fire truck turned north at Holmes Corner (today’s intersection of 212th Street Southwest and 76th Avenue West) and continued on a straight run to the intersection at Vaughn’s Corner, approximately one mile further north.

At the same time, having attended evening services at the Church of God Campgrounds in north Edmonds, a group of eight people were now heading home to the Bellingham area. Crowded into a 1937 sedan, the six adults and two children were traveling east on the Edmonds-Lynnwood Road (today’s 196th Street Southwest).

In the darkness of the night, the fire truck’s siren was still sounding its warning and the red light continued to flash as the truck drew near Vaughn’s Corner, the intersection of 196th Street Southwest and 76th Avenue West.  At that exact moment, as it traveled eastward toward the Lynnwood crossroads, the crowded, older-model automobile was approaching the same intersection. The driver of the car, Leonard Heiner, possibly did not hear the siren or he may have thought he had plenty of time to clear the intersection. It was approximately 10:40 p.m. when the two vehicles arrived at the intersection at the very same time — the inescapable collision was a deadly one.

Investigators later concluded that the impact from the collision hurled the car through the air approximately 127 feet, where it landed right side up in a ditch, against a tree, pinning the passengers inside.

The fire engine wreckage. (Photo courtesy Lynnwood-Alderwood Manor Heritage Association)

Out of control, the fire truck traveled about 90 feet before hitting a utility pole — the impact tore the pole off at its base. The truck then careened into a 10-foot deep ditch. Tipping on its side, firefighters Gohm, Meyer and Mahoney were trapped beneath the vehicle. Ted Bostwick, another volunteer firefighter from the station, had been following the fire truck in his own car, and was at the accident scene to offer immediate assistance.

With the utility pole down, there was no telephone service available; thus, the recently acquired two-way radio in the fire truck was used to call for help. The first one to hear the call was a Snohomish County deputy in a sheriff’s office patrol car — he relayed the information and called for ambulances and wreckers.

Vehicles from the Everett Ambulance Co. and Beck’s Funeral Home in Edmonds responded and headed for the scene of the accident. Fire District Chief Clarence Crary arrived a short time later.

Charles Cressey and Ken Ryland also arrived and used their two trucks — a wrecker and a shovel truck with a winch — to raise the fire truck in order to free the three firefighters trapped under the wreckage.

Lt. Ray Meyer died at the scene, as did a 10-year-old boy, Ira Lee Williams, who was a passenger in the car. The boy’s 15-year-old sister, Mary Lee Williams, was critically injured. Fireman Fred Mahoney, the driver of the fire truck, was in serious condition and transported to Providence Hospital in Everett, where he died at 3 o’clock the following morning.

Fire department Capt. Carl Gohm, partially pinned under the fire truck, was in a state of shock, with massive chest, head and arm injuries. The other four firefighters received only minor injuries. All of those in the car were injured and five were taken to the hospital. In fact, all the injured were transported to Everett General or Providence Hospitals in Everett for treatment.

Four ambulance crew members and other motorists aided the victims and directed traffic. One ambulance made two trips to the hospital, while Edmonds Fire Chief Jim Astell and a motorist transported two occupants of the car for treatment.

Meanwhile, the volunteer fire department of Mountlake Terrace answered the originating call regarding the brush fire at Talbot Park.

Besides the three fatalities and the two most critically injured already mentioned, others who suffered severe injuries were: Vera Pickard, age 35, of Lake Samish, critically injured; Leonard K. Heiner, age 52, of Blanchard, and Fred Williams, age 66, and Mary Williams, age 42, both of Bellingham, were all on the injured list.

According to the report, the fire truck hit the car just behind the front fender on the passenger’s side, and was a factor in keeping the death toll for those in the car from being higher. Both Snohomish County Prosecutor Phil Sheridan and the head of the Everett office of the State Patrol stated that there would be a thorough investigation.

Counting the losses

Two firefighters were killed in the crash. (Photo courtesy Lynnwood-Alderwood Manor Heritage Association)

Ten-year old Ira Lee Williams, of Bellingham, the only passenger in the car to lose his life, was laid to rest at Bow Cemetery in Bow, Skagit County, Wash. Young Ira Lee Williams was survived by his parents Fred and Mary Williams, and his older sister Mary Lee Williams.

For the small, closely-knit community of Seattle Heights, the accident was a shocking tragedy, especially since many were actually related, as well as neighbors and friends.

Raymond C. Meyer, age 51, was an 11-year resident of Seattle Heights and the owner/operator of Meyer’s Fuel Oil, a Seattle Heights’ business. He was survived by his wife Bernice, and two children, 7-year-old Sharon Ruth, and 8-year-old Raymond Keith.

Frederick R. Mahoney, age 31, a veteran of WWII, had been called back to duty in 1951, and after his discharge the year before, had returned to Seattle Heights. He then became an owner of Eisen’s Garage. He was survived by his wife Evelyn, and 2-year-old sons Pat and Mike, who had been born at Fort Lawton while Mr. Mahoney was still on active duty in the service.

Carl H. Gohm, age 41, never completely recovered from his severe injuries. However, even though he was permanently disabled, he continued his involvement with the fire department as an inspector and fireman for Snohomish County Fire District No. 1. Mr. Gohm died Sunday, Oct. 13, 1968, at the age of 56, following a heart attack. He had lived in the Seattle Heights area for over 50 years, and was a well-known mechanic at Eisen’s Garage for many years.  He was survived by his wife Ruth, and two sons, Thomas and James Gohm.

The 1951 Kenworth fire truck was ordered from Howard-Cooper Corporation of Portland in December of 1950, and had been delivered the first of July of 1951.  The fire truck made its first appearance during the 1951 Fourth of July parade in Edmonds. The newspapers reported that damage to the 1951 Kenworth fire truck was estimated at $12,000, half the truck’s value.

Only a heap of twisted metal was left of the 1937 automobile—the total loss given as $200.

An update to the tragic story

Following the fatal collision, Snohomish County installed blinker lights at the Vaughn’s Corner intersection, the site of the accident — stopping traffic traveling north and south, and showing an amber caution light for east-west travelers.

A lawsuit to establish liability was filed against Snohomish County by Evelyn Mahoney, the widow of Fireman Fred Mahoney; Bernice Meyer, the widow of Fireman Raymond Meyer; Leonard K. Heiner; Mr. and Mrs. Ray Pickard; Mr. and Mrs. Fred Williams, and on behalf of the Williams’ son Ira Lee Williams; also, on behalf of Mary Lee Williams; and for Snohomish County Fire Protection District No. 1, for damage to the fire truck. The plaintiffs were asking a total of almost a half million dollars compensation for damages.

The hearing on the liability action was heard by Judge Thomas Stiger in Superior Court in Everett and was settled in March of 1954, with a total award for the plaintiffs in the amount of $6,500.

The suit asking for $9,500 in damages for the fire truck was dismissed with no settlement. Evelyn Mahoney, widow of Fred Mahoney was awarded $1,000 — she had sought $100,000. Mrs. Ray Meyer and her two children settled for $500 — having asked for $108,000.

A settlement totaling $3,000 was paid to Leonard K. Heiner, Mr. and Mrs. Ray Pickard, and Mr. and Mrs. Fred Williams, and on behalf of the Williams’ son Ira Lee Williams.  The suit on behalf of Mary Lee Williams was settled for $2,000. Leonard Heiner had asked for $100,000; Mr. and Mrs. Pickard for $75,000, and the Williams family requested $88,000.

1955 — Fire Prevention Week exhibit

The entire fleet of fire trucks in Snohomish County Fire Protection District No. 1, shown during a Fire Prevention Week exhibit in 1955. (Photo courtesy Lynnwood-Alderwood Manor Heritage Association)

The photo of the entire fleet of fire trucks in Snohomish County Fire Protection District No. 1, was taken at the recently opened Seattle Heights Fire station building on the southeast corner of 212th Street Southwest and Highway 99.  The older-model fire truck on the far right is a 1925 Reo Speedwagon purchased from the Edmonds Fire Department.  When it was no longer used for fire duty, the Reo was refurbished, painted a very bright red with gold lettering, and for many years was displayed during parades and special events.

September 2018 – Lynnwood remembers  

The signal box wrap commemorating the former fire station at 212th and Highway 99 in Lynnwood. (Lynnwood Today 2018 file photo)

The City of Lynnwood held a ribbon cutting ceremony for one of their newer signal box wraps, which honor historical events in the development of Lynnwood.  The colorfully decorated wrap, featuring a fire truck and other relevant art work is located at the northeast corner of 212th Street Southwest and Highway 99 — once known as Eisen’s Corner in the community of Seattle Heights. This signal box wrap commemorates the location of the first Lynnwood fire station — established by Carl Eisen and Clarence Crary at Eisen’s Garage on this corner in 1929. These signal box wrap projects depicting the city’s diverse history are the result of work done by the Lynnwood Arts Commission and the History & Heritage Board.

— By Betty Lou Gaeng

Betty Gaeng is a former long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. Although now living in Anchorage, she occasionally writes about the history and the people of both early-day Lynnwood, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace. She is also an honorary member of the Edmonds Cemetery Board.

 

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