Pipeline memories: City Councilman filled in for mayor when pipeline blew

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 9, 2009 

When a gas pipelied ruptured and expoloded on June 10, 1999, Pat Rowe was a Bellingham City Council member and mayor pro-tem. Rowe is co-owner with his son, James, of One Stop Movie Rental Kiosks.

Here is his story, in his own words:

Not asking for, but because of circumstance On June 10th, 1999 I found myself as mayor of Bellingham during the first few days of the pipeline explosion. Mayor Mark Asmundson was out of the country and as mayor pro-tem I assumed the duty until his return a few days later. I was picking up my council packet Thursday June 10th, 1999 for the meeting the following Monday. Someone came through the council chambers and said we had to evacuate the building. Not knowing the full reason why, we exited city hall to see the billowing smoke in the skyline.

The mayor pro-tem usually steps in for the mayor for ceremonial events and signs warrants in the mayor's absence. This turned out to be much more. Not knowing the extent of what was happening, I went to the Broadway Fire station and listened to the buzz of activity and reports coming into the station. After an hour or so I headed home. Shortly after arriving home I received two calls from fellow city council members Bob Ryan and Leslie Langdon. Both expressed concern about the flow of information coming from the local emergency broadcast station KGMI and suggested I pass along what I knew to that point from the information I got at the Broadway Station.

I called KGMI attempting to reassure the community everything was being done that could be. I then went to Iowa and Woburn where an on-site command station had been set up. The sequence of events get sketchier from here on out as we were following the next issue and event that arose.

A temporary command center was being set up at the Best Western Lakeway Inn. Local, regional, state and federal representatives were at this meeting attempting to assess the situation.

Current Fire Chief Bill Boyd was information officer at the time. He was sitting next to me during a discussion about which jurisdiction held what powers. Bill suggested that I (as mayor pro-tm) should make it clear that the City Of Bellingham was the lead jurisdiction. I did and everyone agreed.

Back to city hall to find out we had another possible serious development. The sewer treatment plant was getting readings that gas or gas fumes were in the sewer system from Whatcom Creek along the boulevard to the treatment plant. ... The jail may need evacuating. Homes along the boulevard may need be evacuated. We were on the line to WTA getting busses ready to evacuate the area if that were necessary. The Coast Guard had been contacted to help remove the prisoners from the jail. This was a very scary time. Fortunately, the readings diminished and finally leveled off safely. A big sigh of relief from all concerned.

One thing the community learned from this tragic event was that our emergency communication system needed restructuring. A lot of people were going to bed with a lot of questions that night. Sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., it was decided to hold an early-morning press conference. Media from Whatcom County, Seattle, Vancouver B.C. and the nation for that matter had all converged on Bellingham. Bill Quehrn was working for KGMI (local emergency broadcast radio) as well as volunteer Whatcom County emergency services public relations rep, and with the help many people, we put together a press conference for early Friday morning. Myself, The Mayor's chief administrative officer Don Keenan, Bellingham City department heads and others gave an updated report on the state of affairs and the tragic loss of life.

Friday the temporary command center was moved from the Best Western Lakeway Inn to the first floor of the Whatcom County Courthouse near the Whatcom County Emergency Services command and its director, Neil Clement. (Later, Neil gave many presentations at conferences about how the community responded to this event.)

At all times we tried to keep City Council members aware of what was happening, as I knew they would be getting queries. I can't say enough about the dedication and expertise of the city department heads, staff, city council and others who worked tirelessly the first few days of this life-changing event.

The hardest thing I personally had to do was talk to family members of young men who perished that weekend.

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