More Than a Decade of Healing

Bill Quehrn is currently the Executive Officer of the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County.

At that time I was employed at KGMI Radio in Bellingham and served as a volunteer public information officer for the Whatcom County Department of Emergency Services. My wife was actually the first person to call me about the explosion. She could see the smoke from her workplace downtown. She told me that I would probably not be home for dinner that evening. Was she ever right!

I was actually at home getting ready to prepare dinner. I stepped outside and I could also see the smoke rising in the air. I jumped in the car and turned on my radio. We didn’t have cell phones at the time, but as I drive toward the creek I was called by KGMI on my car shortwave radio. After getting through the perimeter on Iowa Street I reported to the Command Center to (then Bellingham Fire) Captain Bill Boyd and offered my services as PIO. I spent the next 20 hours or so working with the Fire Department and other responders helping them get the word out to the local community and outside of area news media.

The situation was unfolded rapidly for several hours, but slowed down by late that evening. As I recall it was shortly after 8PM when those of us at the Command Center were told to report to the Best Western Lakeway Inn for a briefing and reporting session. As we started that briefing … somewhere around 9 PM as I recall … several of the Fire Department folks alerted us to a new problem. A fair amount of un-ignited gasoline had flowed down the creek and had collected in the storm water pipes along the Boulevard. The concern was that a spark of any kind could cause an explosion in those compressed underground pipes that would threaten many homes and buildings along the Boulevard. We spent the rest of the night keeping in touch with fire and public works folks who --- at great personal risk --- managed to ventilate and eventually flush those pipes avoiding what could have been a secondary disaster.

By about 4AM the situation seemed to be well controlled. I was tasked to set up a news conference at City Hall to report to the community, and by then a much larger audience, on where things stood, the extent of damage as we could assess it at that point, and of course the deaths of the boys who were killed by the initial fireball.

I contacted Bellingham City Council Chair Pat Rowe, serving as mayor pro tem and we were able to live broadcast that news conference on KGMI --- as I recall --- about 7 the following morning. After reporting back to the radio station and preparing some of the sound bites I had collected in the previous 15 hours or so, I returned home.

It must be noted that at that time Whatcom County still enjoyed one of the most effective and mutually supportive emergency response programs anywhere in the nation. Under the county-wide emergency plan the moment a first responder reported that an incident had exceeded the capability of that agency to control, the on-scene commander reported that to their dispatch center and every asset and resource available under the plan became immediately available. Command shifted upward to the next appropriate level and the senior elected official essentially became empowered to call out what ever resources were necessary, usually via activation of the Whatcom County Emergency Operations Center.

Far more important, on the ground the various emergency response professionals and volunteers who drilled and practiced together instantly melded into the response force that was needed to control the incident, protect the public, secure the scene for legal and other purposes, order assets (trucks, loaders, heavy equipment, etc), alert on-scene and hospital medical assets, make sure food and water was available to responders, and whatever else it took to get the job done. I worked on a number of emergencies over the years and was always impressed that uniforms no longer mattered, turfs disappeared, and the most outstanding cooperation by both professional and volunteer responders and supporters simply flowed with no interruptions of any kind. Captain Boyle (at that time) remained in operational command and did a splendid job of coordinating resources, directing immediate fire and other emergency responses, proceeding with appropriate follow-up tasks to restore the city to normal as rapidly as possible, and at all times earned and maintained absolute respect for his authority and the decisions he was called on to make from his own agency and all the rest who eventually became involved in the incident.

The final note is how lucky we all were that this incident did not happen a couple of months later when the trees and vegetation would likely have been much dryer and likely to catch fire. Bellingham Fire Department and the volunteer departments they called for mutual aid did an amazing job of containing and extinguishing the initial fires, monitoring and dealing with the downstream hazards, and protecting life and property.  I am still thankful today that it was not a dry, hot August day when we might have ended up fighting fires throughout Geneva, Alabama Hill with no idea what the property and life loss might have been.



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