Where There’s Smoke

Monday, October 7, 2019

It was blustery when I took my morning walk, west on 57th St. to Shilshole Ave., a bit north and then back on 64th St., listening to Chris Allen’s “The Seattle Files” episode 44, titled “The Cult of Ramtha”, about J. Z. Knight and her supposed channeling of a 35,000 year old warrior spirit from the lost continent of Lemuria. Lots of fun. Yvonne and I had driven by her compound in Yelm, not far from Olympia, several times, once when looking for the start of the 14-mile Yelm-Tenino trail.

Is it fog? Or?
Is it fog? Or?

Now I was eating an early lunch by the window, looking north across 58th St. waiting for Yvonne to come home from her exercise class, where’d she’d been with Alison. I noticed apparent fog rolling in from the west and Elliot Bay but didn’t pay much attention. I was absorbed in reading the latest online news, mostly bad, as usual. I’d heard some sirens but one does living in the city so I didn’t pay much attention. When Yvonne came in, a little after noon, she said there was smoke coming from the building at the corner of Market St. and 24th Ave., two blocks away, blowing in our direction. And fire engines were all over the place. Now I could see smoke rather than fog. Uh oh!

Lots of smoke from the fire to the south
Lots of smoke from the fire to the south

We went out on the building roof to see what we could see to the south. Lots of heavy smoke billowing up and over our building and two TV news helicopters circling overhead. Back in our apartment we began to smell smoke. It was coming inside, drawn in by the building ventilation system. Then the fire alarms started up in our apartment. Going out into the hallway we could tell that fire alarms were sounding throughout the building. The hallway fire door had closed. There was noticeable acrid smoke in the hallway. Two fire engines, with lights flashing, were parked on the street below. Now what?

Our daughter’s mother-in-law, Rosa, 78, also lives in the building, her apartment facing south and the source of the smoke. Knowing she’d be worried, Yvonne called her and said she’d be right down. I decided to go down to the first floor and talk to the the building management. Because the building smoke alarms were active, the elevators had shut down, (but not the ventilation system, which was still drawing in smoke), so we’d need to take the external stairs on the south side of the building. The smoke was awful and uncomfortable to inhale.

Downstairs the building staff had the door to the alarms panel open preparing to shut off the alarms. Building tenants were walking out the front door with their dogs and cats and small children. Staff was handing out air filtering face masks. Three firemen were now in the building to help with the elevators and evacuate anyone who wanted to leave.

I called Yvonne, now in Rosa’s apartment, and she said Rosa was very upset and she was getting Rosa ready to leave. Rosa has a hard time walking and would not be able to take the stairs. She needed the elevator and the fire department would have the main elevator working shortly. I walked up the outside stairs and the smoke was much worse now, outside and inside. As I walked by the elevator, the doors opened. I told the fireman operator to wait, that my wife and I were helping an elderly woman get to the elevator. The second fireman aboard came out into the hall and started knocking on doors, offering elevator service to residents still in the building.

Now at Rosa’s apartment, I got her wheeled walker ready and Yvonne encouraged her to move quickly to the elevator but Rosa was worried about her cat, Chiqui. I said I’d go back and get the cat later.

The fireman/elevator operator took us to the basement parking garage. We drove out and made our way east to 15th Ave. and then south across the Ballard Bridge to the Magnolia Hill neighborhood where our daughter, Jeni, lives with her husband, JC. Fortunately she was home from work early. From Magnolia Hill we could see a huge plume of smoke rising from the burning building and moving north. It was now about 2:30.

Our building management had sent out an email at 1:51 describing the smoke, the help the fire department was providing, and advising those staying in the building to keep all windows and doors closed. Twenty minutes later the building management sent out another email, telling everyone to evacuate the building because of the smoke and to take their pets. Residents were to stay out of the building until 7 p.m. A third email followed, repeating the evacuation notice and pointing out that the staff, now outside but near the building, was available to help residents cope with the evacuation. A final email, at 5:38, informed us that the building was safe to enter again. Whew!

KIRO 7 Live from the scene
KIRO 7 Live from the scene

Yvonne knew about the myballard.com website, so once at Jeni’s we looked there for news about the fire. The site linked to a KIRO 7 Live Chopper news feed. Firemen were on the roof of the building opening holes so water could be applied directly to the fire. Firemen on extension ladders were directing streams of water into the building and onto the roof. Dense smoke continued to billow out of the building. It was now a three-alarm fire, serious, and two-thirds of Seattle’s Fire Department equipment was on the scene.

Jeni performs cat rescue and snaps fire fighting picture
Jeni performs cat rescue and snaps fire fighting picture

We decided we needed to rescue Rosa’s cat and bring her to Jeni’s apartment. I’d drive and Jeni would go into the building, put the cat into her carrier and bring her back to the car. I sat in a no-parking zone while Jeni got Chiqui and took a few pictures of the fire from the outside stairs. The worst of the smoke seemed to be over.

While we continued to watch KIRO 7 for fire updates, our son-in-law, JC, came home from work. Jeni made a great Mexican food dinner for all of us and we talked about the fire and JC’s recent trip to see an Iron Maiden concert in Mexico City. He said he loved visiting the Museo Nacional de Antropología. Yvonne and I could have befitted from that museum visit as well since it was relevant to the UW history course we were taking. But an Iron Maiden concert? Not so much. Then it was time to go home to our apartment building in Ballard. Would the smoke linger? Would smoke have damaged clothing or furniture? As it turned out little smoke odor lingered in the building or in our apartment.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

After breakfast I went out to look at the remains of the fire and to find out what was happening with the local bus routes, especially the 44 to the University District, where I’d be going later in the morning to our history class. (Yvonne had something else she needed to do.) I hadn’t been able to find bus re-routing information on the Metro Transit website.

I saw a yellow-vested Metro Transit employee talking to a bus driver parked outside the Ballard Branch Library, not a place buses usually frequent. He said the westbound 44 wouldn’t go west of Leary but turn left there from Market St. and come back to Market at 20th St. and go back east toward the U District. The 40 and 17 buses going south would pick up on Leary, south of Market.

I saw many people trying to figure out where to catch their bus and I helped those I could as I walked west on Market St. toward the location of the fire. People were waiting at bus stops on Market where it was blockaded and no bus could get in. I couldn’t understand how they expected a bus to show up. Metro Transit was doing a great job rerouting the buses but somehow word wasn’t getting to Metro customers.

Follow up
Follow up

The Market St. block from 22nd to 24th Avenue was closed to traffic. Three fire engines were stationed close to the scene of the fire, one with its ladder extended, a fireman over the roof of the building, spraying a few spots that were still exhaling smoke. Looking from across Market St. from the south at the five shops housed in the burned building, I was surprised at how much was left. Most of the plate glass windows were intact. Merchandise and furnishings were soaked, overturned, and scattered but not burned. The outer walls were intact and the building to the east along Market and the building to the north along 24th appeared undamaged by the blaze though only inspections can confirm that. Less damage than I expected given the amount of smoke and the intensity of the fire. All the result of the effective work by the Seattle Fire Department.

Inside damage visible through undamaged windows
Inside damage visible through undamaged windows

What caused the fire? Grease from a restaurant range? At the scene I saw three Fire Investigation Unit staff at work. By the end of the day their preliminary report came in: the fire was probably caused by overheated electrical wiring between the ceiling and roof. Damage was estimated at $3m. According to MyBallard, “Kitchen N Things, La Isla, Super Cuts, and Octo Designs Jewelers were all completely destroyed, and Pho Big Bowl sustained water and smoke damage….” Ballard Alliance has launched a GoFundMe fundraiser to help the businesses rebuild.

FIU on the job. Maybe the findings can help prevent a future fire somewhere.
FIU on the job. Maybe the findings can help prevent a future fire somewhere.

City living may mean more exposure to fire danger, not just from the building you live in with hundreds of other people but from smoke generated from nearby buildings. Fire alarms disable elevators and that can be a big problem for people who have a hard time walking. Fires can disrupt public transportation and though re-routed it may be hard to find out where. On the other hand, public servants, like the fire department, are well trained and sensitive to the implications of a fire beyond the burning building. And well-trained and pro-active building staff can provide advice and help one couldn’t provide oneself. An interesting 24-hour period. Not fun exactly but we learned a lot, did some visiting with family, and have a greater appreciation of the risks we’re exposed to and the expert help ready to serve.

© 2019, johnashenhurst. All rights reserved.

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