'Bellingham lost its sense of innocence' in pipeline disaster


Bellingham pipeline explosion

Smoke belches upward from the City of Bellingham water treatment plant in Whatcom Falls Park on Thursday, June 10, 1999. Fuel from a gasoline pipeline leaked into Whatcom Creek and exploded, killing three Bellingham youths.


Mike Leigh retired in 1998 after 25 years with the Bellingham Fire Department, but he "unretired" to become fire chief a year later.

Soon after, the ground shook beneath his feet.

The afternoon of June 10, 1999, a fire crew went to Woburn and Iowa streets to check out reports of a strong odor. Firefighters peered out over Whatcom Creek and saw dense vapors rising from the strangely colored water.

"They realized something nasty was in the water," Leigh said.

Moments later, the gasoline vapors ignited in a series of explosions that raced through Whatcom Falls Park and down the creek.

Meanwhile, Leigh was in his office back at the Broadway fire station.

"I remember feeling the ground shake," he said.

Three youths died from the blast - Liam Wood, 18, and Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King, both 10 - that tore through the wooded haven in the heart of the city.

"Bellingham lost its sense of innocence," Leigh said, "its sense of security."

He and other fire officials knew that pipelines coursed through Bellingham, but they hadn't had reason to pay close attention to them. Firefighters needed to know what sort of fuel, and how much, was flowing into the creek - information crucial to knowing how best to fight the flames and to protect firefighters and the public, Leigh said.

Soon after the explosion, Leigh recalled, workers at Trans Mountain Oil Pipe Line Corp., which ran another pipeline in the county, reported no problems with their system. But employees at Olympic Pipe Line Co. reported possible "glitches" in their line that ran through the park. Fire officials eventually got answers to their basic questions about what had leaked from the ruptured pipeline.

"It felt like an eternity," said Leigh, who retired as fire chief six years ago and now lives in Ferndale.

As terrible as the disaster was, Leigh knows it could have been much worse.

The weather was cool and the school year was just wrapping up, so the park and the creek weren't full of people. A natural bottleneck in the creek had slowed the flow of fuel before it reached the freeway and downtown. A fireplace lighter that Stephen and Wade were playing with had inadvertently sparked the explosion, limiting the damage.

And explosive vapors had collected in drains beneath downtown, but the vapors became diluted or evaporated before downtown had to be evacuated.

In the months and years that followed, Bill Boyd, the current fire chief, traveled to workshops and conferences, explaining what happened, how agencies responded, and what lessons were learned from the sad experience.

"The city stepped out and did the best it could to help other communities," Leigh said. "That doesn't take way the loss of three kids."

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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