On the evening of Friday, May 17, 2002, the Seattle Marina, where my 1929 classic Seven Bells is moored, went up in flames, destroying 37 boats, over 30 of which sunk. Ten of the boats destroyed were live-aboards, and over half of the destruction was of older wooden boats, including several genuine and irreplaceable classics.
By the merest whisker of fate, Seven Bells escaped safe and unharmed, though it could not have been a closer shave. Seven Bells was the very last boat out on the edge of the survival zone on the eastern pier of Seattle Marina – every boat past ours was destroyed. Fortunately, our boat will sail again after they clear out the wreckage of burned and sunken boats around it. Interested in a boat ride?
Seven Bells was six slips from the end of the pier. The fire started on a houseboat at the end of our pier, and then spread explosively and immediately – within a few minutes – to engulf a houseboat and five other boats immediately adjacent to each other. It then stopped momentarily, prevented from further progress by a corrugated metal firewall, leaving only a single boat, a 1954 wooden boat that belonged to Jolene and Stewart Williams-Hunt, between the fire and Seven Bells.
Jolene and Stewart were live-aboards who had already gone to sleep when the fire erupted and barely escaped with their lives, fleeing down the long pier in the darkness as explosions shattered the night behind them. As the fire grew on the east pier, one of the firefighters reportedly untied Jolene and Stewart’s boat – which was not on fire at the time – and pushed it out into center of the marina, apparently to create open water between Seven Bells and the flames. When Jolene and Stewart’s boat collided with a flaming wreck, it too caught fire, burned to the waterline, and sank. Another of the boats on our pier had been blown by the wind across the marina to the west pier, where another twenty or so boats burned and sank.
I arrived at the marina just before 10PM after a call from my friend Tim Ryan, the owner of CYA member Marian II, a 1928 Lake Union Dreamboat that is the nearest slip neighbor of Seven Bells on the landward side. I rushed right past the crowd, through the police and fire lines, and out onto the dock until I could see that the fire department had successfully set up its farthest hose on the end of the finger dock to which Seven Bells was moored. (In the aftermath of the fire, a number of people have politely expressed their concern that I might be a complete idiot.)
The fire was at its height at 10PM, with flames roaring over fifty yards in the air, and dozens of vessels fully involved. I could see five or six boats, including Jolene and Stewart’s 1954 restoration project, floating freely and burning fiercely in the gap between the two long piers of the marina. There were small flames licking the roof of the dock immediately above Seven Bells. Within a few minutes of my arrival, the Chief Seattle fireboat arrived after nearly an hour’s journey from Elliot Bay and through the Ballard Locks. With the combination of the fireboat, a police boat with some firefighting capability, and the water hoses run out on the docks from the land side, the tide of battle was finally turned and the fire was contained. By 11:30 the fire was fully under control.
I returned the next morning to a scene of strangely neat devastation. About a third of the dock space had burnt, and 30 boats had simply slipped beneath the water’s surface, leaving the sense that a quiet and extraordinary exodus had taken place. Only a few badly burned hulks still floated in a black scum of oil and ashes to indicate the extent of the destruction, and stunned survivors, my fellow boat owners, walked slowly through the parking lot sharing their tales. Jolene and Stewart told how they had barely escaped with their lives, wakening to the sound of close-by explosions and the vast incandescence of fireballs, running down the dock past Seven Bells in nothing but a bathrobe and a pair of shorts. They had lost everything in the holocaust, clothing, memorabilia, records, and treasures like Jolene’s beautiful old violin and Stewart’s mandolin.
A couple of Seattle fire fighters escorted me out to Seven Bells, which I saw to my amazement was apparently without any damage – nothing burned or melted, no blistered paint or bubbled varnish, no ruined canvas or parted lines or broken hardware.
In the days since the fire, I’ve gotten scores of calls and messages from friends and strangers, near and far, asking about Seven Bells and our neighbors, expressing their love and compassion, their prayers and hopes that we will be safe and that this lovely old boat of ours will float far into the future.
I’ll always remember standing on the center dock of the marina in the midst of the inferno, watching as Seven Bells hovered on the verge of destruction and explosions echoed in the darkness every few minutes, and thinking that even such a treasure, no matter how beautiful, was nowhere near as important as the safety of my friends and family, and the work we all have to do in the world on behalf of justice, healthy communities, and human dignity.
Andrew Himes is the owner of Seven Bells