Cause of Chinatown fire remains undetermined — building’s future also uncertain

By Sue Misao
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Firefighters help Gene Lee, left, and Will Chen remove the sign from the office of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

The cause of the Christmas Eve fire in the International District has been classified as “undetermined,” according to the Seattle Fire Department.

On Dec. 24, crews responded to the fire that started at about 4 p.m. on the top floor of the three-story Hudson Building, sometimes called the Louisa Building, on the corner of 7th Avenue South and South King Street.

Owned by the Woo family, the Hudson Building houses the Mon Hei Bakery, Palace Décor & Gifts, Sea Garden Seafood Restaurant, Seattle Gospel Center Bookroom, Palace Decor & Gifts, Liem’s Pet Shop, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Yuan Sheng Hang herbal shop, and the Pacific International Co.

A total of 30 fire engines and support vehicles responded to the fire, with firefighters in “defensive” mode once it was determined that there weren’t any people on the top floors, said Seattle Fire Dept. Medical Services Officer Lt. Michael Barokas.

The burning building was deemed unsafe for firefighters to enter. It had also been named to the City’s “dangerous list.”

Firefighters used several 1,000-gallon-a-minute ladder pipes along with multiple hose lines on the flames, flooding the streets and drenching the first-floor businesses.

South King Street between Maynard Avenue South and 7th Avenue South was shut down and a large crowd of onlookers was cleared from the sidewalk due to signs that the building walls might collapse. About 40 percent of the City’s firefighters were involved.

About two dozen residents in two apartment complexes across Maynard Alley were evacuated, the alley was closed off, and several hundred Seattle City Light customers lost power when the fire department requested the shutoff to the surrounding buildings.

Sixteen firemen stayed overnight to observe the building out of fear it might collapse. On Friday and Saturday nights, firefighters brought four engines to keep watch.

 

Businesses closed

Harry Chan, owner of Tai Tung restaurant in an adjacent building, lost power and had to close shop 10 minutes after the fire started. He said Christmas Eve is traditionally very busy for them and he had to cancel a lot of reservations that night. Still, he received more than 20 phone calls from customers checking in to see if he was OK.

“I feel very good,” said Chan. “People really cared about us.”

Dr. Raymond Chen, whose Washington State Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine Clinic is across the now-closed alley, said he was in the middle of treating two 90-year-old patients when the clinic’s smoke alarm sounded. He sent for firemen to take his patients home out of fear they would have heart attacks, he said. He was impressed by the firefighters’ quick and professional actions.

“They responded instantly,” said Chen. “They really want to save lives. They came in with stretchers for the patients and the ambulance was ready to send them home. The firemen here have done such a good job.

“As a taxpayer,” Chen added, “I am happy to say my taxes are worthwhile.”

Palace Décor & Gifts owner Steven Wu said he hopes to reopen his business in the same location, or nearby if that’s not possible.

Sea Garden Seafood restaurant owner Andy Wong said his restaurant was fully booked for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Wong, who had just painted his restaurant for the holiday, said he wants to reopen in the same location if the city allows, but would likely to look for another location if the building needs to be demolished.

If the building has to come down it would be a great loss, he said, since he can’t move out any of the kitchen equipment.

He is hoping for some compensation from his insurance company. The Sea Garden opened in 1981.

Michael Chen, spokesperson for the Gee How Oak Tin Family Association in the 7th Avenue building adjacent to the Hudson, was pleased to learn his insurance company would pay for all the smoke and water damage to his building. “I am now relieved,” he said.

The investigation into the cause is on hold due to the building’s possibility of collapse. “All we care about is if it’s arson or incendiary,” said Assistant Fire Marshal Gary English.

On Thursday and Friday, business owners, escorted by firefighters, were allowed to enter their water-damaged stores for periods of five minutes to an hour to retrieve salvageable belongings or important paperwork.

On Dec. 27, Mayor-elect Ed Murray toured the fire site to see what the City could do “to help and restore the neighborhood.”

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development determined the building is currently unsafe for occupancy.

 

Building has history

The Mon Hei Bakery is owned by the Woo family and leased to Anita Fok, whose father and husband were the first bakers the Woos hired from Hong Kong. Mon Hei was the first bakery in Chinatown, as well as the first Hong Kong style bakery in Seattle.

The 104-year-old building was purchased by the Woo family in 1960 for $160,000. It is considered a historical property due to its location in the International District, according to the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The Chinatown bulletin board on east side of the buiding facing 7th Avenue South is a Seattle City designated landmark.

A Jan. 1, 2013 appraisal of the property put the value of the land at $1.44 million, and a value of the building at $346,400, according to King County Assessor Lloyd Hara.

 

What’s next for Hudson Hotel

Tim Woo, one of the building’s owners, said on Friday that the family is weighing their options on what to do next. “We don’t know if we’ll demolish it or what,” said Woo. “We’d like to preserve it.”

Another member of the family, Teri Woo, said the family was feeling very sad.

“This is a big loss to us and the community,” she said. “Our family is overwhelmed by the fire. We had spent over $1 million to shore up the building after an earthquake. The building was well maintained. Our family checked on the building regularly and the property was inspected. It is not an ‘abandoned building’ like what the others said.

“We love the building,” she added. “It stirred a lot of memories. Our siblings and I were born in the building.” (The family bought the building before the children were born.)

Woo said at one time there were multiple families living on the mezzanine floor for 20 or 30 years, but they had moved out 10 years ago due to their old age.

“The family wants to preserve and rebuild the building, but we have to see the structural engineers’ recommendation,” said Woo. “If it’s not safe, then we have to demolish it. We have to pay for the engineers, security guards, and fence out of our own money. We charge very low rent for our tenants because we want to support the community. We’ve known each other for years and we keep the rent low, so businesses can survive.”

The Woo family charged the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce only $1 per year for rent.

The fencing Woo referred to is to be installed around the building’s perimeter to protect pedestrians from falling debris, and the structural engineer hired by the Woos will determine the long-term status of the structure. (end)

Sue Misao can be reached at editor@nwasianweekly.com.

One Response to “Cause of Chinatown fire remains undetermined — building’s future also uncertain”

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  1. […] at this point. For more info on the fire and its effect on the owner and businesses, go to the Seattle Times and NW Asian Weekly. It is unknown at this point whether the building will be demolished or if it […]


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