Fire! At 6:43 p.m. on April 25, 1935 the frantic call for help rang through to the City Hall fire station. Henry Weslowski, a janitor at the State Capitol building thought he smelled smoke near an elevator shaft and upon investigation found his entry to the basement blocked by thick dense smoke. It took ten minutes for the first fire trucks to respond and by then black smoke puffed from the dome of the building.
The fire had begun in the basement where a labyrinth of rooms including a restaurant kitchen and waste paper storeroom made it virtually impossible for firemen to cover the area with their hoses. They began to chop holes in walls and floors hoping to choke off the fire and prevent it from reaching the main floor above. Working against their efforts were three hollow wooden pillars, first balcony supports, that served as huge chimney flues, drawing the flames upward. By 7:20 p.m. tongues of flame had burst through the east wing roof close to the dome, and roared throughout the attic space. As the dome burned, the copper turned a hue of beautiful colors.
By 8:04 pm the dome had burned to a skeleton of steelwork. Onlookers watched as it rolled ominously to the northeast then settled inside the walls, burning its way to the ground. A thundering vortex of flame then burned its way through the entire structure. Firemen could only concentrate on moderating the intensity and protecting nearby buildings.
The great clouds of smoke rolling from the top of the building initially attracted hundreds of people from all parts of the city. By the height of the fire between 10 and 11 o’clock, literally thousands and thousands lined the streets and grounds, some climbing onto nearby houses and buildings for a better view. By dawn all that remained of the 60-year-old capitol were the giant two-story columns and blackened, empty walls. The fire had destroyed nearly a million dollars worth of property, burned irreplaceable state records and documents, and taken the life of one fireman.
That firemen was Willamette student Floyd McMullen. An 18-year-old sophomore from Hermiston, Oregon who worked as a callboy at the east Salem firehouse in exchange for lodging. McMullen was born on March 24, 1913 to J.W. and Esther McMullen, the oldest child in a family of five. He was 5 feet 11 inches in height with curly brown hair and gray eyes. Before coming to Willamette his entire life had been spent in Hermiston. He came to university with unusually high recommendations and a high scholastic ranking. He was a member of the Wesleyans, a Willamette group Save devoted to Christian service, and active in the affairs of the campus YMCA.
Floyd was stationed at the northwest corner of the statehouse near a basement window, manning a hose with fellow firefighters. As his Captain Ray McCauley later recalled, “suddenly we heard a crash and rumble….I looked up and saw a cornice crashing down on top of us. McMullen, the last man on the hose ran to the right and the rest of us ran to the left.” The heavy stone caught Floyd across the small of the back and he was buried in a pile of debris. They had to pull the bricks off him with a truck. When pulled from the wreckage he groaned once or twice but did not speak. He never regained consciousness. At 11:30 p.m. he was pronounced dead upon arrival at Salem General Hospital. His skull had been fractured from nose to back, his chest, pelvis and both legs were crushed. There were a lot of close calls that night, but only one fatality.
Floyd holds the distinction to this day of being the only Salem firefighter killed in the line of duty. In gratitude and as a memorial to Floyd, citizens of Salem raised money to build and equip a first aid car, a fore-runner to modern paramedic and ambulance services. It was named the Floyd McMullen Memorial Car and for many years it served the citizens of Salem and nearby communities well, saving many lives.
This article was written by Kaylyn Mabey for the Statesman Journal newspaper where it appeared on Sunday September 17, 2017. It is reproduced here with sources for reference purposes.