Readers remember: Whatcom Creek, June 10, 1999 - Salish Current
June 7, 2024
Readers remember: Whatcom Creek, June 10, 1999
Salish Current readers

Just as the Lummi House of Tears story pole at a trail head off Woburn Street memorializes the tragic explosion at Whatcom Creek 25 years ago, memories of readers evoke the community’s response that pushed establishment of new pipeline safeguards. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current © 2024)

June 7, 2024
Readers remember: Whatcom Creek, June 10, 1999
Salish Current readers


Remember the day the pipeline exploded in Whatcom Creek, and the days afterward? Salish Current asked readers to share their memories  around the June 10, 1999, catastrophe. We’re grateful for the responses, and not surprised that they echo the community’s response at that time, of compassion and grief fueling action — “never again”— that pushed establishment of new safeguards.

I recall being convulsed with sorrow hearing that the parents of the boys could touch only their feet as it was the only part of their bodies not burned. It still breaks my heart. I can’t imagine the suffering. Putting it in the most blunt terms I can: No lust after money should surpass the need for safety.
— Kristi Anderson, Bellingham

Just as my car passed over the I-5 Whatcom Creek freeway bridge around 5 p.m. the local radio station cut out on my car radio. I didn’t know that the cause was an explosion less than a mile from the bridge. When I neared an intersection near my home, neighbors were in the street pointing and staring in the direction from which I had come. I stopped and saw a black mushroom cloud rising high into the sky. My wife and daughter were watching the cloud when I arrived home. We felt confusion and apprehension, calming our daughter as best we could. We learned the next day that our former neighbor had been killed by the fumes from the spill that later resulted in a large fire and explosion.
— Michael Chiavario, Bellingham

I was up at Western Washington University registering for classes when I heard a huge explosion. At first I thought maybe Mount Baker had erupted. I was on a bicycle and was really scared, hearing sirens and seeing that something big was happening. I cycled home, turned on the local radio to find out what happened and got onto my hammock. I stayed there listening to the sirens and the news.
—E. J. Jacobs, Bellingham 

I was assistant city editor at The Bellingham Herald, normally a low-key job. But June 10, 1999, the city editor and managing editor were gone, so I was in charge. Late afternoon we heard police-scanner chatter about the smell of gasoline by Woburn Street. Then we heard a boom, so we ran outside for a look. I’d seen black smoke from fires and accidents, but never smoke that tall, and never smoke that widened like a shower curtain, as the fire ignited fumes along the creek. I knew it was going to be a long night, and that the city would never be the same.
— Dean Kahn, Bellingham

As I drove home on Alabama Street, I saw a smoke plume on Iowa and tuned to KGMI for the local news. By the time I reached Woburn, the smoke was rising in a line. I arrived home and KGMI reported no immediate threats. We live about 1/3 mile from the fire. I’ve often thought: If June hadn’t been wet, or if the explosion had happened in August, when the foliage was dry and many more kids were playing in the creek…. Trivia question: what’s the second U.S. stream to catch fire, after the Cuyahoga?
— Dan Raas, Bellingham

I was entering Stanellos Pizza in Fairhaven when a noise made me turn. A huge, dark mushroom cloud was rising from an area I didn’t think was industrial. I said to the couple behind me, “If that’s toxic, and the wind blows this way, we may all be dead!” My fear was based on the chlorine leak from a tanker truck at Georgia Pacific on Oct. 20, 1987, when a cloud of deadly ferric chloride injured seven people and generated a panicked evacuation of downtown Bellingham. That was on my mind when I saw the cloud. It has stayed there since, as we pushed for the closing of GP and safety of the gas pipeline. 
—Taimi Dunn Gorman, Bellingham

It was a beautiful late spring day. I had just left my office at the Terminal Building in Fairhaven and was making my way up Harris Avenue to the Black Cat where I was meeting a friend for a beer, but first I had to stop at the grocery store (the old Red Apple, now Haggen). While in the deli someone said there was an explosion outside. I ran out to the parking lot and saw people staring to the east over the crest of South Hill and looking at a huge plume of smoke that was rising in the air. The first thing my mind could conjure up was that Mount Baker had erupted. Only later would I understand the heart wrenching tragedy that was happening in that moment.
—Seth Fleetwood, Bellingham

I was completing my third year of graduate school in Bellingham, about to receive my master of arts degree on June 11, with friends and family coming into town. The afternoon before, I was walking on a treadmill at a gym out on Bakerview Avenue when the power went out. Within minutes, everyone was outside, looking up at the giant cloud of black smoke billowing overhead. As word got out about the three boys who were killed in the fire, a crushing sadness settled in. I’m the mother of a son myself. I can’t think of my graduation without remembering that sorrow.
— Nancy DeVaux, Friday Harbor

June 10, 1999, was my birthday and my first week as executive director at NSEA (Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association). Headed home via the bay, I looked to the east, saw the giant plume of smoke and listened to KGMI as the details of the disaster rolled out. Three boys and all aquatic life in our beautiful Whatcom Creek for three miles were dead. Whatcom Creek’s history has been a continuous story of death and life. Within weeks, NSEA volunteers mobilized the community and folks channeled their anger and grief into restoring the creek and providing a place process for healing. We worked with Liam’s mom and Western Washington University to create the Liam Wood Flyfishing and River Guardian School for youth.
— Wendy Scherrer, Bellingham

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