Ten years after pipeline explosion, Kings learn to feel joy again

Frank King, left, and Mary King share memories of their son, Wade King, as Frank holds onto a photo of Wade at their Bellingham home on Wednesday, May 27, 2009. Ten years ago, Wade was killed in the 1999 pipeline accident. He was 10 years old at the time.
Frank King, left, and Mary King share memories of their son, Wade King, as Frank holds onto a photo of Wade at their Bellingham home on Wednesday, May 27, 2009. Ten years ago, Wade was killed in the 1999 pipeline accident. He was 10 years old at the time. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

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Bellingham pipeline explosion

The June 10, 1999, Olympic pipeline explosion killed three people in Whatcom Falls Park. The tragedy scarred Bellingham, but increased pipeline safety nationwide. Here’s a look back at The Bellingham Herald’s coverage.

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BELLINGHAM - Wade King is forever a child.

His friends are becoming men. But Wade always will be a boy, in the memories of those who love him and on the gravestone etched with the prayer he said each night with dad, Frank King.

"Please help me be a good, kind, loving, giving, sharing boy," Wade said, the final words before he went to sleep.

Some of the words watch over him at Bayview Cemetery - "a good, kind, loving, giving, sharing boy" - buried there after dying 10 years ago in the Bellingham pipeline explosion.

"You look at your child's date of birth, June 5, 1989, and his date of death, June 11, 1999. Ten years, that's all he had," Mary King said between tears one recent evening a few days after visiting her son's grave.

The Bellingham boy was one of three youths killed when a pipeline ruptured, spilling 237,000 gallons of gasoline into Whatcom Creek. Fumes from the gasoline ignited, setting off a fireball as Wade and friend Stephen Tsiorvas, also 10, played on the banks of the creek near its confluence with Hannah Creek. They suffered third-degree burns over 90 percent of their bodies in the June 10, 1999, explosion.

The fourth-graders at Roosevelt Elementary School died the next day.

Liam Wood, a Sehome High School graduate, also died. He was overcome by fumes while fishing in the creek and drowned. He was 18.

Ten years later, the Kings talk about those first nightmarish days that gave way to years of fog, about pushing for pipeline safety, about honoring their son's memory, and about being able to smile with happiness instead of always weeping in pain.

"He was a very special, very happy, loving child that had a huge zest for life," Mary said. "I think he lived every day to the fullest, right to his last day."

The Kings had been married 20 years when Wade came into the family. Frank was 42 and Mary was 41 when their third child was born. Wade's sister Tracy was 16 and brother Jason was 14.

"You have a child late in life and there's something about that child that you're a better father and a better mother and more patient," Frank said, while holding Mary's hand. "Not that I didn't love the two older kids, but he was everything to me. He was our joy."

Tracy is now 37 and Jason is 35. They're both married and each have two children of their own.

Wade was a tow-headed boy with blue eyes, just like his brother and his father. He was an active athlete whose first love was baseball.

One of Mary's treasured memories is of her son hitting a grand-slam home run and looking at her as he rounded the bases. It was the night before the pipeline explosion.

"You never go to your child's game and think he's not going to be here tomorrow. You think you're going to have your child forever," she said.

In August of that year, the father of one of her son's teammates showed up with a picture taken after that game. It shows a grinning Wade.

"It was really hard to look at (then)," Mary said. "It's a treasure to me now."

Being able to appreciate mementos and hear stories about their son is a long way from the early days after the pipeline blast.

"The first three years were a fog. I look back and I don't know how we got through those days," Mary said. "It was hell. It was like waking up every day in hell. As time went on, you get busy, you find other things, distractions to fill your time."

When Wade died, they shut the door to his room and left it closed. Mary fell apart and could barely function. Frank turned his grief into an angry crusade against Olympic Pipe Line Co., a quest for justice for his boy. The Kings, along with the families of Liam and Stephen, would push for stricter pipeline safety standards and lobby for tougher laws and penalties.

As their grief eased over time, so did their push against the pipeline industry - and their bitterness and hatred, so they could live in joy again as they believe Wade would have wanted.

"Having that kind of hatred will just eat you alive," Mary said. "Frank has been able to let go of a lot of the intensity of fighting the pipelines and realizing that we did what we could do, but they are what they are. And it's a much bigger problem than we'll ever solve."

As part of that letting go, the Kings have forgiven former Olympic Pipe Line Co. employees, including Frank Hopf, the former vice president and manager, and Ron Brentson, former supervisor of products movement.

The two were sent to prison for six months and 30 days respectively for their role in the blast.

Kevin Dyvig, the operator at the time of the explosion, was sentenced to one year of probation.

The Kings have met all three and stayed in touch with Brentson and Hopf. The change came when Hopf asked to talk to the Kings, and they allowed him to visit their Bellingham home in 2003 in the hope that "he would give us some answers we didn't have," Frank said.

"We took him up to Wade's room, which was exactly the same as it was the day he died," Frank recalled of their former home on Iowa Drive, where they had lived for 28 years before moving to flee painful memories.

"I said, 'This is what we have left of our child. Do you know what we live with every day of our life?' " Mary said. "He stood there like we'd hit him over the head."

"It was at this point that we knew he didn't want this to happen. He wasn't solely responsible for it. It was his culture that was responsible for it," Frank said, adding that he meant the "carelessness and recklessness (that) is perpetuated, obviously by the individuals, because they've been trained by other individuals."

The Kings are not so forgiving of the Olympic Pipe Line Co.

"I think of all the mistakes that were made that day and had one thing been different, maybe our children would be here," Mary said. "If I go down that road it's with a lot of hostility. I don't forgive any of it. But as far as Frank Hopf and individuals that we have met, it was not their intention."

Over the years, they've shifted their attention to good deeds to honor their son. The most public of those include the donation of $400,000 to the new Wade King Elementary School and $4 million to Western Washington University for athletic scholarships and recreational programs. WWU in turn named its new student recreation center after the boy.

When WWU students wondered who Wade King was and whether their rec center was named for an old man, the Kings commissioned a life-sized sculpture by Georgia Gerber of Whidbey Island. Wade sits an alcove in the building with a baseball mitt and ball in hand, a smile on his lips, a Sehome High School baseball cap on his head - much as he would have in life.

"I want the kids to know he was a child," Mary said. "He didn't get the opportunity to go to school, but we're hoping his legacy will carry on in all these other students for years to come."

A decade has passed since the pipeline explosion. And while the community this week will remember with a series of events, the Kings will not be participating. They'll be in Arizona.

"It's just too painful," Mary said. "You don't want people not to acknowledge it. I don't blame people for saying something because they're compassionate, but it's just an anniversary that we don't want to be here for."

This year carries an additional burden.

"It's the 10th anniversary. He was 10 years old when he died. We had him for 10 years. Now we've been without him for 10 years," said Frank, owner of the King Nissan Volvo dealership in Bellingham.

But they don't want their son, Liam or Stephen to be lost to time.

"They should never be forgotten," Frank said.

Life goes on for the Kings as well, but no amount of time will erase their loss.

"It's a different life than I ever thought I would lead. I'm not saying it's not a good life," Mary said. "There will always be a hole in our heart. I remember another mother (whose child also had died) saying, when Wade first died, she said, it will never be filled.

"I said, 'does it get better, does it get better?' She said, 'Oh sure, it gets better.' But, she said..." and, here, Mary paused.

"It's always there," Frank finished.

"Every day," Mary finished. "There's no changing that."

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