BELLINGHAM - Every once in a while, Stephen Tsiorvas' family would find toys the 10-year-old boy left behind.
In the sandbox they turned into a garden bed for blueberries, they discovered Star Wars figures he had buried there. In a section of the backyard that was transformed into a koi pond and waterfall, they found a toy car, a little toy soldier and a sheath for a plastic sword. The mementos now sit on the edge of the waterworks.
"His spirit is here," Katherine Dalen said of her son, who died 10 years ago in the June 10, 1999, pipeline rupture and explosion in Whatcom Falls Park.
Stephen and friend Wade King, also 10, were on the banks of Whatcom Creek that day when a fireball, sparked by a butane lighter they were playing with and fueled by 237,000 gallons of gasoline that had leaked into the water from the pipeline, roared down the creek.
Never miss a local story.
Seeking relief from their burns, Stephen threw Wade into the creek and jumped in. The boys then climbed out of the water and stumbled down a trail, where they were met by Stephen's brother, Andrew, and his friend Tyrome Francisco. The older boys had jumped the fence of the family's house on Iowa Drive and ran into the park, looking for Wade and Stephen, after an explosion shook the home.
Badly burned, the boys died the next day.
Liam Wood, an 18-year-old Sehome High School graduate, also died. He was fly-fishing in the creek when he was overcome by fumes, fainted and drowned on June 10.
A decade after Stephen was taken from them, Dalen and Skip Williams, Stephen's stepfather, shared bittersweet memories of the inquisitive child and talked about how the community and their friends helped them through that terrible time.
"I want the community to know that I appreciate their strength and their prayers, and the love they showed us," Dalen, 54, said one day recently, while sitting in the backyard of their Iowa Drive home. "That's the only thing that got me through. If I hadn't had a friend and a connection. ... It kept me from that void of grief that was ever-threatening."
Dalen was talking about friend Teri Cruzan, whose son Nathan was close to Stephen.
Stephen was the youngest of seven children when Dalen and Williams combined their families. They described him as a child filled with curiosity who collected Kool-Aid packets and Tootsie Pop wrappers.
"Do you remember him asking you questions in the car?" Dalen said to Williams, chuckling.
"Oh my God," Williams replied. " 'Hey Skip, what about? Hey Skip, what about?' I mean we're going to Seattle. Every two minutes, he's got a new question."
Stephen also was a thoughtful child who had a way of reaching out to people.
Dalen recalled a father who visited their house after the explosion. His daughter told him that Stephen helped her when she was new to school and felt intimidated. He helped her find her classroom and told her not to be afraid.
"I guess from then on, she kind of looked for him every day because she had a big kid that cared about her. She was very upset," Dalen said, pausing for a long moment, "that some huge thing had just ripped him out of her world. She wanted her dad to find me and tell me that she was going to miss him."
Someone else misses the boy who loved sports and had an easy way of making friends with people of all ages. That person has left flowers outside the family home nearly every day in spring and summer since that June 10.
Dalen and Williams don't know who's doing it. They think it's a neighbor. They guess it's a woman. Whoever drops off the flowers never leaves a note.
"I appreciate it a lot," Dalen said. "Somebody else remembers him and somebody else remembers how horrendous it was, how terrifying it was to this whole community."
Like the families of the other two youths who died that June, Dalen and Williams have become activists for pipeline safety. They have been involved with the Pipeline Safety Trust since it was created in response to the rupture and explosion. Williams, 57, still sits on the board; Dalen resigned earlier this year.
They also have made charitable donations or otherwise been involved in various local organizations, including a $100,000 challenge grant to encourage people to contribute money to buy a permanent home for Northwest Youth Services. RE Sources and the Pickford Theatre also have benefited.
"Part of what I've done is tried to be supportive of things that Stephen might have appreciated or might have been involved with," Dalen said.
Williams and Dalen will be at community events that have been planned for the 10-year anniversary,
"I want the community to understand how much we respect and appreciate their desire to remember," Dalen said.
Their presence in Bellingham this time of the year marks a change; usually, they travel elsewhere.
But if they have been compelled to leave the city in the past, they said they won't allow terrible memories of what happened so near their home, which backs up to Whatcom Falls Park, drive them away. (Their house is down the street from the home of Wade King, whose parents moved a few years after the explosion because they said it was too painful to remain in the neighborhood).
"I didn't want to leave because I could still see Stephen walking down the hall and him in his bedroom," Dalen said. "I could go down there and spend time remembering what it was like."
Williams said he didn't want to leave his neighborhood.
"My feeling is I'll be damned if I'm going to let some idiot in some corporate office drive me out of my neighborhood," he said, referring to Olympic Pipe Line Co., which owned the pipeline at the time. "I'm going to persevere."
And they've done so, by trying to evoke happy memories of Stephen.
"Remembering Stephen with joy, it hasn't been easy because there's always this pervading sadness that he's gone," Dalen said. "Waking up every day and going, 'This has to be a nightmare. This cannot be real.' And coming to the conclusion that it is real."
The family has struggled in the decade since Stephen's death.
"We have suffered several other losses as well, including that of Stephen's niece, my granddaughter, and Stephen's grandfather, my father," Dalen said. "We came together again in fear and sadness when Stephen's older brother (Andrew) nearly lost his life in an auto accident."
But Andrew recovered, and joy was again ushered in with the birth of a grandson seven months ago.
"Despite everything, we love one another. My family continues to miss Stephen daily," Dalen said. "We carry on, if not with grace then at least with tenacity."