Bellingham remembers pipeline explosion 15 years later


BELLINGHAM - It's been 15 years of slow healing since the Olympic Pipe Line ruptured June 10, 1999, setting off an explosion that tore through the landscape of Whatcom Creek and claimed the lives of two boys and a teenager.

About two dozen people gathered at Whatcom Creek Tuesday to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the pipeline explosion, which killed 10-year-olds Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas and 18-year-old Liam Wood. A service of remembrance and healing also was scheduled at Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Bellingham Tuesday evening.

The Rev. Dick Cathell, chaplain at St. Joseph hospital, remembered seeing the column of black smoke after the explosion and trying to get to Whatcom Creek to help. He soon realized that he needed to be at the hospital to help the wounded.

"The smoke was so high. It was unbelievable," he said. "It was like a war zone."

He was there when the boys were brought to the hospital, and he rushed Stephen's mother to the helicopter so she could see her son before he was airlifted to Seattle, where he died shortly after.

"That was a very, very difficult day," he said. "Everybody felt their pain. It was just so tragic."

At the time, no family members were allowed on the helicopters during those airlifts, and Cathell has spent the years since working to get families access to the helicopters so patients can be with a loved one during the trip to Seattle. Families now have that chance, he said.

"I've worked for years on that," he said. "That's a simple thing, and yet when somebody is critically ill like that, it's the most important thing. You want to be with family; you want to be together."

Jason King was 24 at the time of the explosion that killed his younger brother. At the time, the community's incredible outpouring of support really stood out to him. Seeing people come out to commemorate the tragedy 15 years later was a reminder that people still care.

"The wound never really heals, but time sort of softens the burning," King said. "Life has to go on and people have to keep moving forward."

After the explosion, King said he felt sad at losing someone he loved and angry at how his brother died. But as King has grown up and become a father of two himself, he's been able to gain more perspective. Now, he's grateful for his life, for his supportive family and for his children.

"Those feelings have kind of subsided," King said of the anger and sadness. "For me, personally, being a parent now, every day is the best day to value being alive because your whole situation can change in a moment, as it did."

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or

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