On June 10, 1999 around 3:25 P.M., a 16 inch fuel line owned by the Olympic Pipe Line Company ruptures spilling over 277,000 gallons of gasoline into Whatcom Creek. The volatile fuel explodes killing three people. The massive fireball sent smoke 30,000 feet into the air, visible from Anacortes to Vancouver!
One and a half miles of earth was scorched, and 25 acres destroyed in the explosion. It was witnessed that the river was so full of gasoline, it had turned pink.
Residents nearby called into 911 complaining of an overwhelming smell of fuel, but by this time it was too late. At 4:55 P.M., approximately and hour and a half after the estimated time of the pipe rupture, the river was set on fire!
|Map of Whatcom Creek’s path (in red) that flows
through downtown Bellingham, and into the bay.
The fire ignited half a mile before the I-5 underpass
just to the east of downtown.
Two young boys, lighting off firecrackers nearby, as it was close to the Fourth of July, were playing near the river. These innocent children are heroes! If they had not accidentally set the fire off when they did, the gas would of continued under an interstate highway, directly into downtown, spilling into the busy Bellingham Bay and marina, with potential deaths and injuries in the thousands. (see map, above)
On June 18, 1999, Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmendson said, “The cause of the fire was the fuel released from the Olympic pipeline. The fact that it was ignited was inevitable. With the thousands and thousands of gallons of fuel that were proceeding down Whatcom Creek, had the ignition not taken place where it did and at the time it did, the damage to this community and the loss of life would have been far greater. These boys completely, without notice or any awareness, were involved in an action that ended up being heroic for the city of Bellingham.”
FOURTEEN YEARS LATER
Hiking the Whatcom Creek trail today, it’s hard to believe that such a hellacious event happened here. If you look for it, you can find burn scars on the trees and see the restoration efforts by the city to bring back salmon and other species to this precious stretch of land.
Nature finds a way to heal and recover.
|Smoke Rising from the Creek
The creek is a special place for me, as are most rivers, and woodland areas. I find the forest such a peaceful location for a “technical detox”; a place to clear my mind and sort things out. I feel fortunate to live in a city that makes nature trails such a priority. Thanks to this trail system I am an easy walk to Whatcom Creek. Although I have only lived near the creek for a year, I am encouraged by the recovery efforts the city has made.
This last Saturday at the Writers International Network Literary Festival in Richmond, B.C., I read my poem “River Ink” inspired by Whatcom Creek. The Festival’s theme this year is “Peace”. I shared this history of the creek with the audience.
William Wordsworth, a Romantic poet, said it best, “Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”
The creek is green, luscious with all types of trees, bushes, wildlife, and fish. Nature recovers, finds a way.
Now, simple folk like myself, who just want to recover from a hectic day can stroll along this peaceful river
with the encouraging visual reminder that life continues, even after it seems all is lost.
My thoughts today are with the family members of those three lives,
lost on that fateful day, in June 1999.
May your hearts recover from the lost of such young life.
Rest in Peace
Liam Wood, 18, and Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, both age 10.
|A Falls Along the Upper Portion of Whatcom Creek
City of Bellingham restoration update:
History Link Sequence of Events: