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News / Northwest

25 years later, memories of Olympic Pipeline disaster still haunt families

10-year-olds Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas and 18-year-old Liam Wood perished in a horrific gasoline spill, explosion and fire.

By Matt Benoit, Salish Current
Published: June 17, 2024, 6:05am
2 Photos
Frank (top left) and Wade King (bottom right) enjoyed a San Francisco Giants game around the time of their birthdays, June 4 and 5, 1999 &mdash; just days before the explosion of the Olympic Pipeline in Bellingham took Wade&rsquo;s life.
Frank (top left) and Wade King (bottom right) enjoyed a San Francisco Giants game around the time of their birthdays, June 4 and 5, 1999 — just days before the explosion of the Olympic Pipeline in Bellingham took Wade’s life. (Courtesy Frank and Mary King) Photo Gallery

This article was first published by Salish Current.

Until recently, Frank and Mary King were never in Bellingham on June 10.

Each year since 1999, they’d resolved to be far away from the city where their son grew up, from the creek where he was burned over 90% of his body, from the cemetery where he was buried.

A quarter-century after 10-year-old Wade King became a victim of the Olympic Pipeline accident, his parents cannot shake the memories of the day their lives — and those of two other families whose sons also perished — changed forever.

“It was like a living hell,” said Mary King, Wade’s mom. “I just thought, how could my life be okay again without Wade?”

A well-lived childhood

Frank and Mary King moved to Bellingham from Utah 11 years before Wade was born.

When he came into the world in 1989, the couple was in their early 40s and already raising a teenage son and daughter. But it wasn’t long before their oldest were out of the house and, at a point in life with more secure finances, they could focus solely on Wade.

He had a great love for food and sports, the couple recalled, and at times seemed wise beyond his years.

“He was just full of mischief and joy,” said Mary. “He never had a bad day, I don’t think.”

By 1999, Wade was a fourth-grader at Roosevelt Elementary School and living life to the fullest. He learned to ski that winter, and during his midwinter break his mother took him to England, where his interest in King Arthur’s knights was on display.

Although Wade played both basketball and football, his true love was baseball. His father had been a catcher in high school, even playing in college with eventual major leaguer Art Howe. His older brother was an all-state catcher at Sehome High School, and Wade became like a mascot for the team, running the bases at the conclusion of each game. When Wade began playing, he too became a catcher.

“He lived a lot of life in 10 years,” said Frank.

On what would turn out to be Wade’s final birthday on June 5, Frank — whose work as owner of a Bellingham car dealership necessitated travel to the Bay Area that weekend — took his son to a San Francisco Giants game.

Back in Bellingham four days later, Wade himself was on the baseball diamond, playing for his Boys and Girls Club team. They’d been playing poorly enough that he’d expressed regret to his mom for having signed up, but — unable to be traded to a better team at 9 years old — he had little choice but to tough it out.

That evening in his last at-bat, Wade hit a grand slam. The team was all smiles, posing for a dugout picture that one of Wade’s teammates would later give to Mary several months after his death.

“Everyone thinks their child is special, but I don’t know,” she said. “He just had an essence to him that … people just liked him.”

Neighborhood buddies

The Kings lived on Windtree Court, along the northern border of Whatcom Falls Park and about 300 feet away from the Iowa Drive home of Katherine Dalen and Skip Williams.

It was here that Wade and 10-year-old Stephen Tsiorvas — a fellow student at Roosevelt Elementary — became friends. They weren’t always friends, as Frank explained: several years prior, he’d witnessed the two in a physical altercation.

Williams, Stephen’s stepfather, said he only got to know his stepson in the last two years of his life. But he found Stephen to be a particularly intelligent and inquisitive child.

“He was very sensitive to other people’s feelings,” Williams recalled. “He was a great kid, and if I would have seen him through to adulthood … (he) had a lot of potential to do great things in life.”

June 10 was a Thursday, the second-to-last day of the school year for the boys. That afternoon, Frank King came home briefly to check the progress of his home’s re-carpeting. Wade met him at the front door, asking to be taken to a nearby bike shop since he’d just gotten one for his birthday. But Frank had to go back to work, and Wade eventually found his way over to Stephen’s house.

At some point, the two boys headed into the park. When the explosion occurred, Stephen pushed Wade into the creek and jumped on top of him, trying to shield him from the flames, Frank said.

While it has never been conclusively proved what ignited the explosion in Whatcom Falls Park, it’s assumed the boys were inadvertently the source, as they’d been playing with the sparking flint of an empty butane lighter.

In a press conference a week after the blast, Bellingham mayor Mark Asmundson called the boys “heroes.” If the gasoline had not ignited in the park, he’d said, it would have eventually continued flowing towards Interstate 5 and downtown, where a later ignition could have multiplied the damage and loss of life.

Enjoying and preparing

The last time Marlene Robinson spoke to her 18-year-old son was the morning of June 10, according to a  Bellingham Herald article written two days after the explosion.

Liam had just graduated from Sehome High School, and she’d asked him to make dinner for himself — usually eggs and hash browns — since she and Liam’s stepfather would be in meetings that evening.

Wood had the day off from the outdoor sports store he worked at, and he decided to go fishing — a pastime he’d come to cherish and become quite skilled at. He specifically loved fly-fishing, even teaching adult acquaintances of his mother. On this day, he headed to one of his favorite spots.

“Whatcom Creek was his place in Bellingham,” his mother later told the Herald. “He loved it.”

The day was also shaping up nicely for 51-year-old Donald Alderson, whose house near the bank of Whatcom Creek on Valencia Street had been his residence for more than 20 years. Alderson, a city Public Works Department employee, had come home early to pack for a trip to California so he could see his daughter graduate from high school.

At some point in the late afternoon, Alderson began smelling gasoline fumes. He initially thought they were leaking from his car parked in his driveway. But as the smell grew stronger, Alderson noticed that Whatcom Creek was not its normal color.

“(It) looked like I could have poured it in my gas tank and driven away,” he told the Bellingham Herald. Soon after, his dog Chester began having a seizure. The animal emergency led both Alderson and his dog away from his home and to nearby firefighters. Minutes later, a fireball engulfed his house, blasting pieces of the foundation into his front yard.

‘I could feel the heat’

When the gasoline in Whatcom Creek ignited just after 5 p.m., Skip Williams was on the phone inside his Washington Education Association office on Dupont Street.

A colleague walked in and asked him if Mount Baker was erupting. He looked out the window and quickly realized it was something else, but he had no idea what.

When Frank King saw the flames and smoke, he was in his front yard. His first impression was that a tanker truck had exploded on a nearby street.

“I (could) feel the heat of the flames on my face,” he recalled.

Knowing that Wade was playing at Stephen’s house, he quickly began walking that way and eventually met his son on the pathway behind the Williams’ house. Wade told his father he was burned. Soon after, a 16-year-old friend of Stephen’s brother emerged from the woods carrying Stephen on his shoulder.

Despite being burned on every part of their body except for where they wore belts and shoes, the two boys were conscious and talking to family members. Their skin did not look charred, but their clothes were burned and their hair was gone. When Mary showed up, she said Wade tried to hide from her, not wanting her to see what he looked like. Frank was most afraid that Wade’s lungs had been burned, but his son told him he could breathe normally.

All of this led Frank to assume the burns were not life-threatening. But when paramedics arrived and Frank saw their faces, he realized things were more serious.

The two boys were taken in ambulances to St. Joseph Hospital, where they were sedated before being helicoptered to the burn unit at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. Mary’s brother, Don Haggen, drove the couple to Seattle.

Once in Wade’s room, doctors told the Kings their son would not survive. With heroics, they said, he might live another two weeks, but the pain would likely be excruciating. When Dalen and Williams arrived at Harborview, they had not yet seen Stephen in person, having been stuck in traffic while the boys were transported to St. Joe’s. They were given the same news.

In the ensuing hours, both families gathered as many friends and family as they could at the hospital, saying their good-byes to the no-longer-conscious boys. Frank told his son it was okay to leave: there would be a baseball game in heaven, and they needed a catcher.

Around 9 p.m. that night, Whatcom County Search and Rescue volunteers found Liam Wood’s body in Whatcom Creek. The coroner would later find that, unlike the boys, he had been overcome by fumes and drowned before the explosion.

Just after 2 a.m. on June 11, Wade King died. About five hours later, Stephen Tsiorvas also succumbed.

In the following week, the three boys’ funerals each drew hundreds of people. There were so many people at Wade King’s funeral — the Herald estimated nearly 1,000 mourners — that some could not fit into the main portion of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, instead watching the service on a projection monitor in a church annex.

“I never planned on attending three funerals in one week,” said Asmundson, who knew each family prior to the accident. The mayor was on vacation in Russia when the blast occurred, and took the soonest flights he could find back to the United States.

Former Washington Governor Gary Locke, who toured the burn zone along Whatcom Creek a week after the accident, said he was shocked by the extent of damage he saw.

“It was something I’d never encountered before,” he recalled. “It was such a tragic event.”

The wound that never heals

Each family member struggled with their grief in different ways.

Mary King sank into a deep depression in the weeks after her son’s funeral and spent time in psychiatric facilities in both Seattle and Bellingham.

“It was like my whole life ended,” she recalled. “I just wanted to die.”

The Kings describe the months after Wade’s death as a blur punctuated by stand-out memories, including being gifted a Ken Griffey Jr. bat signed by most of the 1999 Seattle Mariners, whom Wade loved dearly.

Frank said it took years to regain a sense of normalcy, and was akin to slowly walking out of a fog. But the couple also recalls the good that emerged.

That includes the story of Frank Hopf Jr. the former Olympic Pipeline manager who served six months in prison following the disaster. Hopf obtained a doctorate in coastal geomorphology after his release and became an advocate for environmental and pipeline safety; the Kings still receive Christmas cards from him and his wife.

Wade King’s name is also commemorated in several Bellingham locations. It adorns a recreation center at Western Washington University, as well as a local elementary school where several of the Kings’ four grandchildren have since attended.

Unlike the Kings, Williams — now a Bellingham city council member — still lives in the same home he did in 1999. He and Dalen split up over a decade ago, and some of their children still struggle with the trauma of that terrible day. Dalen, who now lives in Everett, is in poor health due to a nervous system disorder.

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Donald Alderson recovered from the loss of his home, but in 2018 at age 71, he was brutally stabbed to death during a random crime spree in Bellingham’s Puget neighborhood. His killer received a 31-year prison sentence in 2020.

Liam Wood’s mother, along with her longtime partner, left Bellingham and the United States a few years after the accident. When Williams attended a Pipeline Safety Trust meeting two years ago, he saw her there and learned it was the first time she’d been back to Bellingham since leaving.

Despite the many terrible memories this 25th anniversary stirs up for Williams and the Kings, they all say they are proud of how the community responded to the tragedy.

“The people in this city stood up and said, ‘we’re not going to let this just go by’,” Williams said. Olympic Pipeline went on to face millions in fines, criminal charges and a lengthy shutdown of its pipeline.

And over the years, the Kings have been besieged with cards, letters and kind gestures — many coming from people they’ve never even met.

“That’s probably the thing that will endure with me the most,” Frank said, “is how wonderful the people in Bellingham were to us.”

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