Requiem for Whatcom Falls

Twenty years ago today, there was a huge pipeline explosion in Bellingham’s Whatcom Falls Park. How can I explain to you who weren’t there?

The park is a brilliant green ravine of old cedars, ferns, salal and moss, with a sparkling salmon stream winding through it. The creek runs down through the hills into the city, from the Lake Whatcom Reservoir. Deeply cherished and actively used.

 When the pipeline blew, a gigantic cloud of smoke rose over our city. Scorched leaves, cedar fronds, and chunks of roofing from a nearby house were blown over a mile. A friend who was a Vietnam War veteran was sure our city had been bombed and napalmed. Zeke and I drove through the vicinity just minutes before the pipeline blew, and noticed the number of emergency vehicles headed the other way.

The pipeline had been damaged years earlier during nearby construction, and it ruptured at the weakened point, pouring thousands of gallons of fuel into Whatcom Creek. The fuel floated on the surface of the water and formed a cloud of fumes above. A young man fishing was overwhelmed by the fumes and died. Two 10 year old boys were playing with fireworks down by the creek and set off the inevitable explosion. They walked out with burns everywhere but the soles of their feet and died later that night. But they were conscious enough to worry that the explosion was their fault. I think that’s the part that grieves me most, all these years later.

Trees turned into torches. Even the soil was on fire, soaked in gasoline. The gas flow was stopped just short of I-5 by a beaver dam. Old Man Haskell had fought for years trying to get rid of those beavers!

Just on the other side of the interstate, Whatcom Creeks flows past a senior high-rise, then dives into downtown, running past the courthouse, the library, the post office and the jail. Catastrophe was so near at hand.

There are pipeline explosions constantly all across the USA. Pipeline companies are accustomed to “settling” with the families of those who die. But their money comes with a price tag: silence. A gag order. The Bellingham families were unusual. They refused to shut up and spent years reliving their trauma, testifying, lobbying, leading the fight for safer pipelines. Because of them, we are all a bit safer these days.

Our city contracts with the local radio station with the highest powered transmitter as it’s emergency information station. In Bellingham, that’s a right-wing station. Before the fires were even out, I listened to the announcer telling us “There are those who care about the families of those poor boys, and then (dripping contempt) there are those who just care about the trees!”

I was so furious at this attempt to divide us as a community in such a moment that I wrote a song. I walked through the park in my mind, looking at what was lost. The song came out better than I expected. Music can help me move through the most powerful emotions. The song, not the words or melody but my feelings and intention, have evolved since this recording was made. I’m more peaceful now when I sing it. It feels like a true requiem. A friend from Colorado created a choral arrangement last year for her Threshold Choir. I feel differently about the song most of the time these days. But June 9th brings me back to my starting point.