On Friday, January 23, I wrapped up my work for the day – but needed to head downtown for my TheatreSports performance. I had a few hours between, so the plan was: grab dinner, a leisurely drink, read a bit, and get centered for performing at 10:30.
I got to my garage – the 7th and Pike Garage in Seattle – at around 5:50.
Yes, I know that’s nowhere near Amazon. Amazon has a pretty terrible parking situation going on. I’m on the waiting list for the waiting list for parking on campus, which is probably another year away. In the meantime, you’re offered a subsidized spot in parking purgatory – for now, that purgatory is 7th and Pike. It’s convenient enough for my husband when he performs downtown, but adds 15 – 25 minutes to my commute (each way) waiting for parking shuttles, etc.
Regardless, I got into the garage, settled into my car, and pulled out down the ramp towards the exit – just in time for the fire alarms to go off. Now, this was the second time that week that the fire alarms had triggered, and the first time was for some sort of extra smoke in the Hyatt kitchen. Nothing related to the garage at all. So I figured, since already in motion and just 1.5 floors from the exit, the fastest way to evacuate would be to continue driving.
But another half floor in, I was stopped 3rd in a line of 5 cars, just after I turned a corner. It was then that I saw the smoke – real, actual smoke of a nontrivial quantity, billowing up the ramp. Two hotel employees came out of the clouds holding tiny fire extinguishers, so I thought they’d extinguished something and this was the residual smoke. They told us to stay back – “car fire”, they said. I asked if we were evacuating (our cars were in the ramp, no one would be able to leave if we did) and were told to stay. So we stayed in line, unable to move back or forward; doors closed and windows up, recirc on.
A few moments later, the smoke was getting alarmingly heavier and had spread to fill most of the floor. The hotel employees came back and told everyone to evacuate, and to abandon our cars. No one argued, since it was clear something was very wrong and it was already hard to breathe. I grabbed my laptop and purse and headed down the stairs.
Thus began an hour of standing around on Pike with no information, no official contact, while being periodically accosted by aggressive panhandlers. As time went on, more people showed up and even tried to go into the stairs, and we bystanders had to tell them no until about 20 minutes later when an employee finally thought to close the stairs and put cones in front. Alarmingly, the air around the building began to grow hazy and pungent with the smoke bleed.
No such effort had been taken at the actual tunnel entrances to the garage, so there was a slow but constant stream of cars literally driving under the evacuated garage, sometimes even going so far as to pull in and try to go through the gates. They didn’t bother to block those exits off until about 7:30 or 8. (And no, the FD wasn’t using those. They were using a side ingress on 8th.)
The only way to get any information on the progress was to go and be a lookyloo on 8th, where 3 fire engines and other support vehicles were stationed. And the “information” was “yep, still pumping water into the building; still wearing oxygen masks.” Every once in awhile I’d see one of the hotel employees who had told us to evacuate and tried to get information but was told “it’d be awhile.”
Twitter was no help either. Even though it was a 3 engine fire, the Seattle FD and PD didn’t tweet anything. I Tweeted at some local news stations to see if they could get any more information, and KING said they were sending a photojournalist over.
Under normal circumstances, I’d have just left my car and gone somewhere else. But my car was in the middle of the ramp, and if they DID open the garage it’d block all progress. I didn’t want to end up with a towed or damaged car (provided my car wasn’t already damaged, which was looking worse and worse as time went on. We didn’t know if it was one car on fire, or 10.) The only saving grace was that I ran into one of my fellow cast members from Where No Man Has Gone Before; it was a fluke that he parked there that day, but it gave us each more familiar company in misery.
Eventually, I accosted the one hotel employee I consistently saw, and he finally gave me some more specific information (“it’ll be a really long time – 2-3 hours”) at 7PM. As best I can tell, I was the only person who received this estimate individually. Others got it hearsay from me. I asked what those of us with cars in the way were supposed to do, since they had folks like me already standing outside with no respite for an hour, and were providing no alternatives. I asked if they could just take our keys, and it FINALLY occurred to him that maybe their valets should take the keys of the people told to abandon.
I went to go back and inform the 2 other people I knew of who were on the ramp, but in the meantime I ran into the King5 news crew, and ended up giving an interview (thus, ironically, becoming the news source I myself had asked for on Twitter.)
Finally, we handed our keys off to the valet and were freed to go get some kind of food or drink. I couldn’t bus home because I still had to perform at 10:30PM. We headed off to Dragonfish across the street – unfortunately so close that we saw the 4th engine pull up, which seemed like a bad sign.
Once we’d eaten, it was about 8:30 or so. 2.5 hours into the mess. We headed back across the street to see that the engines had left, and a random garage attendant told us things were open again. Of course, I didn’t have my keys, so I went to go get them from the valet.
But the valets had no idea about the car arrangement. Luckily my keys were clearly visible on the rack – with the complete license plate number, description, and phone number they had taken down to call me when the garage was open – but they said my car had never been moved. Beyond annoyed, I made them give my keys back and went into the garage.
Even though hours had passed since the fire, the air was hazy and acrid, leaving me to breathe through my scarf. I got to my car to find someone else from the valet company in my car without the keys. I yelled at him to get out, and he mumbled something about trying to move it and the other cars on the ramp. At this point I had little patience, and told him to go talk to the valets upstairs, that many sets of keys had been taken, and to stop trying to physically manhandle the cars at once. He tried to argue, saying he hadn’t “been told”, but I made it clear that he was being told now and he’d better go downstairs and check on it.
At this point, I was able to leave the garage, but the air inside was too sharp. I got a migraine driving downtown to repark for my performance. Of course, there was no street parking, so I had to repark… in another garage. Great. (Walking from the 7th and Pike garage wasn’t an option, as it passes through a shady part of town in the evening, and I was at the time a woman alone with her work laptop and purse.)
After performing – not my greatest show, by any means, what with my heart rate permanently elevated and smelling vaguely of smoke, but the show went on – I returned to find my car still a bit too sharply scented. I drove all the way from Pike Place Market to Redmond with the windows wide open, glad that the rain had temporarily ceased.
As I performed in TheatreSports, I began to get text messages from friends who saw me on the news (people still watch the news live?). My husband even recorded it the next morning, a few seconds of a very frazzled version of me in front of those fire engines. It’s strange when you don’t feel like you have any information and yet seem to be the most informed source a reporter can find.
The smell dissipated over the weekend, but the curiosity about what actually happened has not. On the night, my friend overheard someone saying it was a Chevy Volt that caught fire. But at the time, we had no visual, and it seemed just as likely someone making up a sensationalist story knowing that there were charging stations in the building.
But the following Tuesday, when I finally returned to the garage, I was shocked to see the very burnt hull of a red car, clearly marked as a Chevy Volt, still sitting in a scorched spot in the garage, surrounded only by cones. It was not even on the same floor as any charging stations. A night later, there were about 6 people performing an investigation around the vehicle, and now it is tarped with a fence around it. Something very wrong happened, and no one seems interested in acknowledging it.
Reports are conflicting about what actually happened – SPD said it wasn’t arson, but now they’re not so sure. The latest article I’ve seen (Jan 27) says that the case was reopened. But it’s now Feb 10, and the car is STILL tarped in place. Perhaps Chevy pressured them to reopen the case? I’m not normally a conspiracy theorist, but… there’s a lot of rush hour traffic in and out, and that car was literally parked along the exit ramp. It’s highly unlikely someone could pull that off without being noticed. And if they were noticed on camera, then it’d be an open and shut case.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, the 7th and Pike garage owners really need to get their emergency plan together. The evacuation and ensuing events were poorly handled and highly disorganized. Cars kept turning into the garage not knowing it was closed until an hour and a half later, when they bothered to put up one or two cones. I watched pedestrians with children walk up to the gates even though the FD had said the air wasn’t safe yet. Those of us displaced had to badger staff repeatedly to get very little information, and left me in the strange position as one of the few who had any information at all. It makes me uneasy to park there every day now, and I am actively looking for alternatives, though none have presented themselves yet.
The strangest part of the event was how little it registered on any form of social media. In a way, I suppose this is how things might have gone down 10 years ago in a similar situation, except there were no electric cars to catch fire in the first place. If a car bursts into flames and only one person tweets about it, did it really happen at all?
Well, I suppose I’m here to say that it did. #GarageGate2015? Sure. Not headline news, just another strange evening in a lifetime of strange events.
Even if it was arson, I don’t think I’ll ever willingly drive a Chevy Volt. I don’t want to press my luck.