Speakeasy Fire: An Eyewitness Account of the fire on May 18, 2001

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 5/24/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3301

The night of May 18, 2001, I and another HistoryLink staffer, Chris Goodman, were at the Speakeasy Cafe in Belltown. I was performing at "Eruptuous Revival #3," hosted by Sheryl Diane. The theme of the evening was fire and brimstone as a tribute to the May 18th anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980.

On the bill were Sheryl's ex-husband Joe Skyward, formerly of Sky Cries Mary, and currently performing with the Posies as their bassist. He did an acoustic set with their daughter Brette in the back performance space. I was up next, reading poetry. I remember looking at my watch when I finished, at 10:10. The fire must have started at about 10 to able to get as big as it was before we were made aware of it. Also on the show schedule were singer and pianist, Margo Lauritzen, and Sheryl and Joe's son Jaxin, who performed an act dribbling basketballs to rhythm.

Delay, Maybe; Death, No Way

Chris, Carol Waller, and I sat out in the front section for about 20 to 30 minutes before Joe came through from the front saying "Fire, everybody get out!" Brette was feeling ill and had been outside the front of the Speakeasy on 2nd Avenue, about to have Joe drive her home, when she, Joe, and Jay Kuenher, a patron who had been inside and left, first noticed the fire and ran in to tell everyone. Sheryl was about 4 songs into her performance.

No alarm was sounding. I ran back to the performance space to grab my bag, which I had left on a chair. (Yes, I know, but it had my car keys in it.) Joe came into the performance space and said "Fire. It's bad. Get out now." Chris said, "Is that emergency exit good?" referring to the lit exit sign in front of a door in the back of the stage, and Joe said, "No, it's blocked." Reading the faces of the exiting patrons as I watched for Chris in the back hallway, no one, including myself, was thinking "imminent death," but rather, something along the lines of: "a small fire that we'll have to let the Fire Department put out before we continue the show."

Everyone in the back room left out the back alley door and was immediately horrified to see 30-foot flames shooting out the upper windows on the east alley side against Bell street, licking the Marvin Gardens Apartment building. There were only about 20 feet between the flames and the back door exit and the heat was intense. Everyone headed north up the alley, and I saw men carrying Sheryl's keyboard out. Joe pounded on alley doors and tried to rouse anyone left in the Northern part of the building.

Nick of Time

Everyone was out within a minute or two, but that turned out to be all the time we actually had. There were about 50 people inside, perhaps 30 in the back room and 20 people in the cafe. There were probably about 5 toddlers in the audience, some who had been running loose before I performed. The heat was breaking windows out of the upper floors at this point, raining glass down on the alley.

Chris, the Speakeasy bartender, and another worker did one last check of the space to make sure no one was left inside or in the bathrooms. Chris said he saw black smoke pouring in from the front entrance, which he said was his cue to "get the hell out." He left the building through the alley. Just before he shut the door, the electricity went out and the bottom floor went black. Joe was in the alley throwing rocks through the windows of the upper floors in the north part of the building in case anyone was inside. No one knew if there were residents. Joe and Chris moved a garbage dumpster so a fire truck could get past it in the alley.

I walked around the front of the building looking for Carol, whom we had lost sight of, hoping she had gone out the front entrance. Upwards of 200 people filled the streets watching the fire. Not knowing for sure if Carol was definitely out of the building, I felt ill and distraught, scanning the faces until I found her. From directly across 2nd, we watched the flames engulf the upper floors and the windows blow out onto the sidewalk.

Local Heroes

I remember thinking I was glad to have not found a close parking space as I watched the finish of a car in front of the Speakeasy begin to smoke. The flames rose in three columns, 2 feet wide and 20 feet high from the upper floor directly above the cafe, clearly visible through the broken-out windows. They joined into an undulating sea of fire at the ceiling that reminded me of the Backdraft movie trailer. The Fire Department was there within five minutes, and looked to have it under control within about 20 minutes to half an hour.

Without Joe Skyward, Brette Howard, and Jay Kuenher to warn the patrons, and without the Speakeasy staff and Chris Goodman to check for any people left in the building, there would have definitely been injuries and death. Joe is a certified hero responsible for saving lives, and I must thank him. I subsequently went to the Two Bells with my companions for a drink. With no fire alarm or perhaps a disconnected one due to the construction on the second floor, we were just lucky. And we knew it.

I remember all the performances I have seen and been in at the Speakeasy, and hope it can be made into a functioning performance space again soon. My condolences to Gretchen and Mike Apgar, the owners of Speakeasy.



Personal account; The Seattle Times, May 19, 2001.

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