The Sequence of Events
At 3:25 p.m. on June 10, 1999, the Olympic Pipe Line Company was pumping gasoline thorough a 16-inch pipeline from a refinery in Ferndale, south to terminals in Seattle and Portland, when a pressure relief valve failed. The resulting pressure surge led to a catastrophic rupture in the line traversing Whatcom Falls Park, and sent 277,200 gallons of highly volatile gasoline into Hanna Creek and Whatcom Creek, which flows through downtown Bellingham into Bellingham Bay.
At 4:35 p.m. an Olympic Pipeline field worker who happened to be in the Whatcom Creek area called the company’s command center in Renton, reporting a strong odor of gasoline. Local residents and businesses also started calling the Whatcom County 911 Dispatch Center reporting the strong odor of gasoline in the vicinity of Whatcom Creek.
At about 4:45 p.m., Bellingham Fire Department Hazardous Materials Teams, sent to investigate, found copious quantities of gasoline flowing down the creek toward Bellingham Bay. The water was pink and the fumes overwhelming. The Bellingham Fire Department and Police Department immediately began evacuating the area and setting up barricades. The Bellingham Fire Department notified Olympic Pipe Line there was gasoline flowing down Whatcom Creek toward the city. But it was too late.
At 4:55 p.m., the gasoline vapors exploded, creating a river of fire from the rupture site near the Whatcom Falls Water Treatment Station, one and a half miles down the creek, to Interstate-5. The massive fireball sent a plume of smoke 30,000 feet into the air, visible from Anacortes to Vancouver B. C. Dense black smoke caused the closure of Interstate-5 for more than an hour. Fearing the fire would continue flowing down the creek into downtown Bellingham, police officers began evacuating businesses. Gasoline migrated into the city’s sewer system, and the vapors were at explosive levels for an hour. The U. S. Coast Guard, concerned the fuel could ignite dock pilings and vessels, closed Bellingham Bay for a one-mile radius from the mouth of Whatcom Creek.
The first victim was Liam Gordon Wood, age 18, who was fly fishing in Whatcom Creek when the rupture occurred. According to Whatcom County Medical Examiner Dr. Gary Goldfogel, Wood was overcome by noxious fumes, and fell into the creek and drowned prior to the explosion.
The other two victims, Wade King, 10, and Stephen Tsiorvas, 10, schoolmates at Roosevelt Elementary School, were playing north of the Hanna and Whatcom Creek confluence when the explosion occurred. The boys survived the blast but suffered second and third degree burns over 90 percent of their bodies. They were found immediately and flown to the intensive-care burn unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Tragically, the boys died the following day, on June 11, 1999.
Astonishingly, the explosion and fire caused no additional deaths and injuries were few. By 6:30 p.m., firefighters managed to get the major blazes under control, and by 7:00 p.m., the black smoke had largely dissipated. Fortunately, the fire did not travel west from Interstate-5, and this saved downtown Bellingham. The inferno, estimated to have reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, caused a high-voltage power line and two substations to be shut down, disrupting electrical service to about 58,000 Bellingham customers for several hours.
Damage to Property
Most of the collateral property damage was caused by explosions, which broke windows in homes and businesses and leveled a house on Valencia Street near the creek. The fire was mostly contained in and along the creek bed, leaving the greenbelt charred and blackened. Authorities were astounded that the damage was so light.
Washington State Department of Natural Resources crews assisted Bellingham firefighters in extinguishing the remaining fires in Whatcom Falls Park and helped to evaluate the immediate hazards to officials and search teams from burned trees, debris, and fuel vapors.
The water treatment plant and pump station at Whatcom Falls sustained extensive damage. The treatment plant adds chlorine to the water pumped from Lake Whatcom, Bellingham’s main water supply. The fuel spill occurred about 150 feet in front of the facility, and the subsequent explosion shattered all the windows and blew the doors off the building. Ken Thomas, assistant director of the Bellingham Public Works Department told The Bellingham Herald that for all practical purposes, the pump station had been destroyed. He said the brick and concrete shell was salvageable, but all the control systems, and even the fire extinguishers melted in the fire.
In addition to damaging the station’s five huge water pumps, the blast also damaged chemical feeding equipment. Fortunately, the tanks holding toxic chlorine were undamaged. By the following morning, two of the damaged pumps were temporarily on-line and cranes had arrived to lift out the burned-out motors for the other three pumps. To comply with the law regarding safe drinking water, public works employees began manually feeding chemicals into the water treatment system. Bellingham residents were advised to conserve water until all the water pumps were repaired and back on-line.
The Bellingham Fire Department’s investigation determined that Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas ignited the gasoline vapor from the ruptured pipeline when they inadvertently lit a butane fireplace lighter near the spill in Whatcom Falls Park. The boys had been using the lighter to set off fireworks outside the park earlier in the day. Bellingham Fire Chief Mike Leigh gave his view that the boys were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Boys Saved Bellingham
In a twist of fate, King and Tsiorvas became unwitting heroes. In a statement to the news media on June 18, 1999, Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmendson said, “The cause of the fire was the fuel released from the Olympic pipeline. The fact that it was ignited was inevitable. With the thousands and thousands of gallons of fuel that were proceeding down Whatcom Creek, had the ignition not taken place where it did and at the time it did, the damage to this community and the loss of life would have been far greater. These boys completely, without notice or any awareness, were involved in an action that ended up being heroic for the city of Bellingham.”
Mayor Asmendson further stated “Despite the horror and sadness to these children, we, as a community, are fortunate [the fire] occurred at the time and the place it did because the alternatives and more time would have only made it worse” (The Bellingham Herald).
Criminal Violations and Criminal Negligence
On October 8, 2002, The National Transportation Safety Board, after a three-year investigation, ruled that the Olympic pipeline explosion was caused by a cascading series of events rather than a single catastrophic failure of the fuel pipe. The NTSB cited damage caused in 1994 by IMCO General Construction Company while conducting excavation work at nearby Whatcom Falls Water Treatment Plant, the failure of the Olympic Pipe Line Company to identify or repair the damage, a faulty computer system which failed to respond to repeated indications that pressure was building up inside the pipeline, a faulty pressure relief valve and failure to adequately train its employees.
A criminal investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency resulted in a seven-count indictment by a federal grand jury in Seattle in September 2001. The indictment charged Olympic Pipe Line, and Equilon Pipeline, which had run the Olympic in 1999, with five felony violations of the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act and two misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act. Included in the indictment were three Olympic employees, a vice-president/manager, a supervisor, and the controller at the time of the accident.
On July 28, 1999, the parents of Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Whatcom County Superior Court naming the Olympic Pipe Line Company, the Equilon Pipeline Company and three Olympic employees as defendants. On April 10, 2002, in an out-of-court settlement, Olympic and Equilon agreed to pay the families of King and Tsiorvas $75 million. The Wood family reached a separate, undisclosed settlement with the companies.
On December 11, 2002, Olympic Pipe Line pleaded guilty in U. S. District Court, Seattle, to one felony count under the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act and two Clean Water Act misdemeanors. Equilon Pipeline entered no-contest pleas to the same violations. Under the plea agreement, the companies agreed to pay a record $112 million to settle all federal criminal fines and most civil claims against them. According to U. S. Attorney John McKay, the pleas marked the first time a pipeline company had been convicted under the 1979 Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act.
After this terrible tragedy, Representative Kelli Linville (D-Bellingham) sponsored a bill that would give the state responsibility for regulating intrastate pipelines and improve pipeline safety. On March 28, 2000, during a ceremony at Bellingham City Hall, Governor Gary Locke signed into law the Washington Pipeline Safety Act (House Bill 2420), which allows the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission to inspect 2,500 miles of intrastate pipelines and oversee the state’s pipeline-safety program.
Governor Locke said the law "sets us on a clear path toward stronger and more effective regulations of pipelines and better prevention of accidents" (Seattle P-I). Annual fees levied against the pipeline operators pay for the program, which costs about $1 million a year.