How Bellingham's sunny June day turned into fireball

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 7, 2009 

BELLINGHAM FIRE

Burned areas of Whatcom Creek are visible in this aerial photo shot Friday, June 11, 1999. A pipeline in Whatcom Falls Park ruptured and exploded the previous day, killing three people.

MIKE SIEGEL — AP

It was a pleasant June afternoon. Children played in the sunshine. Adults rushed home to enjoy a few hours of daylight.

But all was not serene that June 10, 1999.

A strange smell was creeping up from Whatcom Creek, slowly wafting through Whatcom Falls Park and into nearby homes. Authorities started evacuating areas near the creek, nervous about the smell and sheen forming on the water's surface. Away from that scene, the rest of Bellingham's residents were unaware of the unfolding event as they finished their work day.

Boom! The explosion came shortly after 5 p.m., followed by a mushrooming black plume of smoke that climbed into the sky and was visible throughout Whatcom County and beyond. Did Mount Baker erupt? Did the Georgia-Pacific waterfront plant catch fire?

In the following hours, residents would learn that a deadly fireball had rushed down Whatcom Creek. It was fueled by 237,000 gallons of gasoline that had been leaking from the ruptured underground pipeline operated by Olympic Pipe Line Co. and into the creek.

Two 10-year-old friends, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, were burned as they played on the creek's banks. They died the next day. Liam Wood, an 18-year-old Sehome High School graduate, drowned after he was overcome by fumes while fly-fishing in the creek.

The ensuing fires burned for days, scorching 1.5 miles of the creek and about 25 acres of Whatcom Falls Park and surrounding vegetation.

Investigators determined the fireball was sparked by Stephen and Wade playing with a butane lighter, which ignited fuel vapors. But they said any spark eventually would have caused the explosion.

Three years later, the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation found a series of errors led to the pipeline rupture. It had been damaged in 1994 when IMCO General Construction Inc. was doing excavation for a water treatment plant project, according to the NTSB report.

But the report placed most blame on Olympic, for inadequately inspecting work around the pipeline, allowing repeated pressure surges on the line and failing to repair damaged sections of it.

Three Olympic employees were convicted of crimes related to the explosion, which shut down a section of the pipeline for 20 months.

The families of Wade and Stephen won a $75 million settlement from Olympic and other companies involved in the pipeline. Wood's family settled privately with Olympic.

The families, backed by an outraged community, led an effort to improve pipeline safety nationwide.

Today, the wildlife and vegetation have mostly returned to that section of the city.

Fuel again flows through the pipeline, though it's now operated by BP.

This week, the city and many of its residents will mark the 10 years since the tragedy.

But for the families of the three youths who died that day, June 10 is an anniversary they'd rather forget.

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