A fire that sent flames shooting 100 feet in the air destroyed the closed Steilacoom Marina at Saltar’s Point early this morning. Three fireboats and more than 50 firefighters from eight fire departments responded to the 4:30 a.m. fire that was spotted and reported by McNeil Island Corrections Center employees.
No one was injured in the fire, according to Sheri Badger, who served as spokeswoman for the Steilacoom Fire Department.
The hot and smoky fire next to the Burlington Northern railroad tracks shut down train service for about an hour.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the state Department of Ecology were on scene to check on the possibility of pollution. Charred debris from the marina drifted north on the outgoing tide. Brown smoke drifted over the city as the wind picked up.
Firefighters set up hoses in the backyards of two homes on the bluff and poured water on the nearly 50-year-old wooden marina that had fallen on hard times after its owner, Paul Wang, was murdered there in 1987 by two juveniles.
Don Yoder, a former director of the Steilacoom Historical Association, lives across the street from the bluff and heard the fire erupt. He had gotten up because he couldn’t sleep.
“I got up, made coffee and heard a whuumpf!” he said as he watched fireboats pour water on the charred building four hours after the fire began. “I stepped outside and there was a lot of flames, a wall of flames. The flames were over the tops of house.”
Tom Kurtz, who lives in one of the three houses on the bluff directly above the railroad tracks and marina, said he was alerted to the fire by a neighbor.
“I looked out the bedroom window,” he said. “It was like a wall of flames … a hundred feet high.”
And it was hot, he said. He could feel the heat from his backyard, the kind of heat that pushes one backward at a bonfire.
He said the firefighters evacuated him and his neighbors while they fought the fire.
“They told me the plan was to contain the fire,” he said. “They said they couldn’t send firefighters intro the marina. It was too dangerous.”
Kurtz said the marina had been condemned as a business and really hadn’t been used in the last few years. The 10-15 boats there weren’t really active, he said, noting their registrations were out of date.
While the large marina building was destroyed, a covered area where a few boats hung from lifts didn’t appear damaged.
Kurtz said he understood the owner, Shirley Wang, might have used the marina as a business office. She couldn’t be reached for a comment.
Kurtz said a fire at the marina was almost inevitable.
“It wasn’t a question of if but when,” Kurtz said. “It’s amazing it lasted this long.”
He said he often watched kids and transients break in or climb inside the marina at night through the roof.
“For the past few weeks, there have been workmen there,” Kurtz said.
Jim Sachet, the regional spill response manager for the Department of Ecology, said they planned to put a floating boom around the burned portion of the marina to contain charred debris from floating out into the Narrows.
“Everything we’re seeing from water, shore and helicopter indicates there is just charred, woody debris and a little sheen from the creosote on the pilings,” he said.
Fortunately a fuel dock that used to be at the marina was decommissioned at least 10 years ago, he said.
“Gas was a big reason boats stopped here,” Yoder said. “Slowly but surely the docks drifted away or collapsed. That’s where the sea lions wintered.”
The murder of Paul Wang shocked the Steilacoom community.
Barry Massey, 13, and his 15-year-old friend, Michael Harris, went into Wang’s Steilacoom Marina store on Jan. 10, 1987. Wang, a 41-year-old father of two, was shot twice and stabbed seven times. Massey and Harris stole candy, fishing poles and more than $140.
They were tried separately as adults, convicted of aggravated first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1988. Massey was the youngest person in the country to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release when he was convicted at age 14.
“His wife, Shirley, continued to run it after that,” said Yoder. “She brought her father over from Taiwan to help her run the business. Her mother, too.”
Kurtz said Shirley Wang was also involved the geoduck exporting business, and in years past, geoducks were brought to the marina. That stopped years ago, he said.
Among the departments that responded to help Steilacoom fire were Lakewood, University Place, McChord Air Force Base, Fort Lewis, DuPont, Anderson Island and McNeil Island.
Badger said fireboats came from Tacoma Fire Department, Anderson island and McNeil island.