ID Buddhist temple engulfed in flames as scared residents lose their homes

By Assunta Ng and Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

Above: To the shock of tenants, the building at 1007 S. Weller St., which also housed a Buddhist temple, caught on fire and suffered extensive damage on the morning of July 8. Top right: Buddha statues were a fixture in the temple. Many were damage or destroyed in the fire. Bottom right: After firefighters evacuated tenants, the American Red Cross help find temporary housing for them at the ID/Chinatown Community Center. (Photos by George Liu/NWAW)

Around 12:06 a.m. on July 8, a fire woke up and scared residents in a century-old, mixed-used building at 1007 S. Weller St. The building housed the Fa-Shin Chan Temple, a Buddhist temple, on the first floor and rooms on the second and third floors. Two people were taken to a hospital with minor injuries. In all, the building had 25 residents. Twenty-three residents and a guest were in the building when the fire started. As a result, 129 personnel from the Seattle Fire Department (SFD) were brought in to stop the fire, according to SFD’s report. The damage was extensive, as the fire took over the whole building. According to SFD’s report, the estimated content loss is $100,000, and the structure loss is $300,000. The building is currently valued at $947,000 and is 9,000 square feet.

Fire department spokesperson Helen Fitzpatrick said the fire, which started on the first floor, was spreading to the rooms when firefighters arrived. According to SFD’s report, the fire started in an “assembly area,” and the heat source was “hot ember or ash.” The item that first ignited was an “adornment” or “recreational material.” Other news sources specifically stated that investigators determined that unattended lit incense caused the fire.

A nun who ran the temple, Master Guang Xue, said that she was thankful that no one was seriously hurt. She said when she first heard glass break from the fire, she thought it was a burglary.

The temple was built about 25 years ago by a Taiwanese monk, Master Hsin Tien, whose real name is Kun Lin Chen. He purchased the building in 1982 for $90,170. In 2009, he donated the temple to Fa-Shin Chan.

Aside from Lunar New Year, the temple has not been very busy.

Several Buddhist statues were damaged or even destroyed by the fire and smoke, including a statue of Buddha with a thousand hands, which was imported from China, said Xue. She is optimistic that it can be cleaned.

Tenants displaced by the fire that burned down their homes on Weller Street talk about their horrific experience at the ID/Chinatown Community Center. (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

Among the 25 tenants who lost their homes, there were three couples. There were about 20 rooms on the second and third floors, with each room renting for about $250 to $320 a month. Bathroom and kitchen facilities were shared.

Most of the tenants are Chinese, originally from Taiwan, China, and other parts of Asia. Among them were a bus driver, hotel maid, hotel worker, seamstress, massage worker, small appliances repair worker, retirees, and restaurant workers. Many don’t speak English, and some have lived in the building for as long as 16 years. Most share a desire to either stay in their rooms or to find comparable low-cost housing in the International District (ID).

The damage to the mixed-use building on Weller is extensive. It took 129 Seattle Fire Department personel to help put out the fire. (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

A few of the displaced residents have relatives elsewhere, but for them, living outside the ID is not an option because most don’t drive.

“I work at the Grand Hyatt downtown,” said Lan Sheng Chen. “I cannot live with my sister in Redmond. It’s too far from work.” Chen said that on the morning of the fire, she could not hear any noise at first. It was the smell of  smoke that woke her up.

Of the nine tenants interviewed, many stated that they were still in shock. Jie Luo, the apartment manager’s assistant, was in charge of collecting rent. He said he could not sleep for the first few nights after the fire.

“I credit [tenant] Leong for saving the tenants,” Luo said. “He worked for a downtown hotel and had training for what to do in a fire situation. He was the first person to discover the fire. He yelled and asked people to get out, and [he] dialed 911. The alarm was too soft, and nobody heard it.” The fire alarm was inside the temple. There were no alarms on the second and third floors.

The statue of Buddha with a thousand hands before it was damaged by the fire (Photo by Yuji Nelson)

Luo said when he first saw the fire, it was in small patches. But it soon spread and grew into huge flames.
During the interview, all tenants pointed to the person who lost the most, Di Lan Zhou.

Zhou was asleep in her room on the second floor and woke up due to the noise. She said she opened the window and saw the smoke. She rushed out of her room with her sneakers and a coat. “Everything was gone in 10 minutes,” she said.

Jer Yu Lee, a shuttle bus driver on the Microsoft campus, has children living on the Eastside but refuses to stay with them. “I feel that my friends need me now. I cannot abandon them. I enjoy living in Chinatown and my independent lifestyle.”

“The landlord has insurance, but none of the tenants has insurance,” Lee added. “Management told us that legally it has no responsibility to help us find a place to live. But ethically, it makes no sense. You are the temple owner, a place for charity [that] helps the needy and those in trouble. We did not start the fire. It was from the temple.”

The American Red Cross (ARC), which has a program to help fire victims, immediately came on board to supply aid. They found temporary housing for displaced residents in the International District/Chinatown Community Center the night the fire occurred. After three days, the tenants were moved to the Yesler Community Center. The ARC found counselors and volunteer translators from Tzu Chi, a charitable organization in the ID, to talk to the victims and find out their needs. Calls were made from the City of Seattle to the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDPDA) and a few other agencies to help find permanent housing for the displaced residents.

However, as of July 16, the displaced tenants will have to leave Yesler Community Center.

“This is a sad situation for many of the tenants,” said Lee. “[The landlord] is the one with the money. It will be easy for the landlord to help these helpless folks. Many of them don’t have money. That’s why they have to live in the place that charged them low rent. These people are at the end of their rope now, without a home and resources. If [the landlord] finds them a place to live temporarily, it will make everyone feel better.”

The building’s manager, Forrest Chu, said that the owner has been very kind to the tenants. “Because he has a kind heart, he wanted to help low-income new immigrants. That’s why he charges only $250, but that isn’t even enough to pay for electricity and water.” Chu said the building’s management wanted to help more but that it is difficult.

An associate of Tien has come by and given red envelopes to the tenants. Chu said they have done their share. The rent was the lowest in the ID.

Barbare Cole, director of SCIDPDA’s property management, said, “[SCIDPDA] is trying to help. It has two units available, but the rent is higher than $250, even with subsidies from the HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development). One [of the units] is in the East Hotel, and the rent is $479 for a studio unit. The other is inside the NP Hotel. It’s $306 for a room with a kitchen and a shared bathroom.

As of press time, only one-third of the displaced tenants have found housing. ♦

Assunta Ng and Stacy Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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