How a top-secret tragedy helped give rise to the popular Frye Art Museum
Seattle Times staff reporter
The details were horrific: Thirty-two people killed. Seattle's largest meat-packing plant heavily damaged. A top-secret military project dealt a major setback at the height of World War II.
A new exhibit at the Frye Art Museum recounts the tragedy of Feb. 18, 1943, when a prototype of the Boeing B-29 bomber, the aircraft that would eventually drop atomic bombs on Japan, crashed into the Frye & Co. building on Airport Way, south of downtown Seattle.
Memories of the event are dimmed not only by time, but by the military's efforts to keep the aircraft a secret. Press accounts at the time simply called it a bomber, or said the plane wasn't identified. Much of the work searching the building was done by military personnel.
The exhibit, "Out of the Blue: The Day a Bomber Fell on the Frye," which opened yesterday, is a fitting subject for the museum to recount during its 50th anniversary year. Disastrous as the crash was, it indirectly led to the creation of one of Seattle's most beloved museums. Many of the 230 paintings collected by Charles and Emma Frye, now on display at the Frye Art Museum, had hung in the meat plant's offices, surviving the crash and fire.
At the controls
The man at the controls of the "XB-29" that fateful day was Edmund "Eddie" Allen, Boeing's top test pilot. Far from the show-biz stereotype of a hard-living, devil-may-care test pilot, Allen was a short, balding vegetarian whose interests included yoga and poetry.
By 1943, he had earned the title of Boeing's director of flight and research. Time magazine said Allen had such an expert touch with experimental aircraft that insurance companies would lower their rates on test flights if Allen were at the controls.
But Boeing was on an accelerated timetable for producing the B-29 "Superfortress." The war in the Pacific, especially the ability to attack Japan, created a need for a bomber with greater range and payload than the B-17 "Flying Fortress."
Flying the second XB-29 built, Allen and his 10-man crew were just 20 minutes into the flight when one of the plane's four engines burst into flames. Crewmen discharged a carbon-dioxide bottle, which seemed to quell the fire, giving Allen time to direct the plane back toward Boeing Field. But minutes later, a fire and explosion ripped through one wing.
"It was flying extremely low — so low we could see every detail," a witness, Billie Barnes, told The Seattle Times. Barnes, who watched from Smith Tower, said, "It seemed to be flying on sort of a slant as though disabled, and there was a trail of smoke behind it."
From her vantage point, Barnes could continue to watch the plane until "it just dived right into that building and there was an explosion and huge flames burst up."
Two men had parachuted from the bomber, but there was not enough time for their chutes to open. All 11 crewmen died, as did 20 Frye workers, some of whom were trapped in the wreckage and smoke-filled elevators. One firefighter died battling the blaze.
Insurance documents indicate 80 live animals and another 700 "freshly killed" livestock were destroyed, said Cory Graff, guest curator for the exhibit.
A tin of lard
"Out of the Blue" includes 38 photos, drawings and charts, plus Boeing artifacts and a few items from the meat-packing plant, including a scale and a tin from one of the plant's products, Wild Rose Lard.
Photos taken shortly after the plane crashed show pigs scrambling to the roof of the partially collapsed building in an attempt to seek safety.
Charles Dissel, 74, then an eighth-grader at Meany School, remembers, "I saw this plane crossing just ahead of where I was going. Somehow it didn't sound right," deeper and louder than the B-17s Boeing regularly flew around the Seattle area.
That evening, Dissel's stepfather urged the boy not to discuss the crash. The stepfather, who worked at Boeing, said the plane itself was considered a military secret, despite the fact that its test flights took place over a major city.
Paintings at the plant
Art collectors Charles and Emma Frye had died years before the crash, leaving operation of the company in the hands of Walser S. Greathouse, executor of their estate. When the Fryes' home was sold in 1941, many of their paintings were moved to the meat plant for lack of a space to properly display them.
After the crash, the meat-packing plant was rebuilt and sold.
Charles Frye's expressed intent that his collection be donated to the people of Seattle came with too many conditions for the Seattle Art Museum. Frye had specified that all of the paintings must be on permanent display, that they not be displayed with abstract work, that admission must be free and the works must be shown by natural light.
Under the leadership of Greathouse and his wife, Kay, the spirit of those requests blossomed into "The Frye," which displays 19th- and 20th-century European, American and Alaskan art and, as its benefactor desired, still has free admission.
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or email@example.com.