On January 20, 1917, the Grand Opera House’s janitor, George Matsu, discovered a fire burning in the middle of the theatre’s balcony and called in a fire alarm. The fire spread quickly and engulfed the entire building, collapsing the dome less than 45 minutes after the blaze was discovered. Battalion Chief Fred Gilham was killed when the roof collapsed on him. Eight other firefighters, along with a policeman, were seriously injured with burns and broken bones. Guests at the hotel next door were evacuated because of the danger of the fire spreading.
Within two days, the City Council charged its Public Safety Committee with making an investigation of the disaster and of relevant city laws and how they were enforced. Resolution 5497 stated that “the recent fire in the Grand Opera House, with its fatal results, shows the necessity for strict building regulations and efficient enforcement thereof as well as honest inspection, especially in relation to places of amusement where large numbers of people gather day and night.” The investigation was to be undertaken so that “the chances of a recurrence of such fires may be lessened or prevented.”
The committee found that the theatre had been declared unsafe several times in the years prior to the fire, but also that it was no more unsafe than other buildings constructed in the same period, before the fire and building codes were improved. Hearings devolved into byzantine discussions about whether a former superintendent of buildings had been removed by the mayor for refusing to issue permits for changes to the theatre, but in the end no blame or responsibility was assigned. Defective wiring was assumed to be the cause.
Proving that anything can and will be used for advertising purposes, the Aero Alarm Company ran a large ad in the Seattle Times the very next day, claiming that had their alarm been installed, “Seattle’s pioneer theatre would be standing intact today.”