Realizing that the fire was out of control and their only hope for controlling it would come with an interior attack, Campbell borrowed a turnout coat from one of his men and disappeared into the building.
The Union Oil Fire
On June 26, 1911, an alarm came in from E. Salmon and Water Street shortly after 7:45 a.m. An oil pump at the Union Oil distributing plant had thrown a spark, igniting gas accumulated in its motor pit. As he got into his automobile, Chief Campbell knew the fire would be hot. One of the first at the scene, he began directing arriving engine companies. By 8:30, every fire company in the city was on the line, an incredible jumble of men, machines and horses, slipping in inches of water as they tried to position themselves.
Realizing that the fire was out of control and their only hope for controlling it would come with an interior attack, Campbell borrowed a turnout coat from one of his men and disappeared into the building. At 8:39, there was an ominous rumble from the basement as accumulated gases approached their flashpoint. Bodies were hurtled across the street, tank heads flew 200 ft. in the air, the north wall was tossed across the street and the roof fell back to the ground. Campbell was last seen silhouetted against the flames, holding up his arms to brace against the falling roof.
By 10:15 a.m. when the fire was brought under control, word had passed from engine company to engine company that Chief Campbell had gone into the building before the explosion and had not come out. Rescue efforts began, and his body was found huddled in his borrowed turnout coat with the letters “F.D.” still visible on the buttons.
A Profound Loss for Portland
The passing of David Campbell signaled the end of an era. Campbell had successfully straddled the cusp between the old and the new in terms of manpower organization and technology.
After Campbell’s untimely death at the age of 47, the public came out in droves to mourn the hero they fondly knew as “Our Dave”. Over 150,000 citizens crowded into downtown Portland streets for Campbell’s funeral, which to this day is the largest number of people that have ever gathered for a similar occasion in Portland’s history.