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Friday, January 3, 2014

Dread for fish-shop owner after Chinatown fire: ‘I don’t want to see’

Dread for fish-shop owner after Chinatown fire: ‘I don’t want to see’ | Local News | The Seattle Times

Dread for fish-shop owner after Chinatown fire: ‘I don’t want to see’

Liem’s Pet Shop, a fixture on Maynard Alley for almost 35 years, is among the businesses forced to shut down after a Christmas Eve fire in the Chinatown International District. With the power cut off, the owner fears thousands of fish may die in their tanks.

Seattle Times staff reporter

On Tuesday afternoon, Djin Kwie Liem was finishing up with a customer at his store selling tropical and domestic aquarium fish in the Chinatown International District, when he smelled smoke.
He ran outside and looked up to the roof of the three-story building where black smoke was pouring out above South King Street. He closed the shop door but left it unlocked in case firefighters needed to get in.
Late Thursday, with the upper part of the building so damaged that fire officials say the fire’s cause almost certainly will never be known, Liem was allowed to return to the ground-floor shop just long enough to collect his business license, cash and receipts.
The store was dark. He had only a small flashlight. He said he couldn’t bear to check on the fate of his thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of fish that had lost their heat and oxygen supply when firefighters cut off power.
“The tropical fish maybe survive one day. The goldfish, maybe three. I don’t want to see. It might upset me,” said Liem, who has had a passion for fish since he was a boy in Java helping his father raise goldfish in a pond. He has run Liem’s Pet Shop on Maynard Alley since 1979.
Structural engineers from the city cordoned off King Street between Maynard Avenue South and Seventh Avenue South as they assessed the damage to the century-old building at 665 S. King St. that houses eight businesses, including Sea Garden Seafood Restaurant, Mon Hei Bakery and Palace Decor & Gifts.
Fire Chief Gregory Dean said the unoccupied upper area is too dangerous for investigators to enter. Several business owners said they’ve been told they may have to wait weeks to find out if they can ever reopen.
Benny and Sirena Wu, who have owned the gift shop for 19 years, said they will be allowed back inside for about five minutes Friday morning to retrieve valuables.
They weren’t at the shop Tuesday afternoon but got a call from his sister-in-law that firetrucks had surrounded the block. “I told her to get out. Merchandise you can replace. Life you cannot,” said Benny Wu.
He worried that water damage might be extensive — all of the top-floor windows were broken as firefighters sprayed jets of water onto the flames. Smoke from the burning building, the site of the 1983 Wah Mee massacre, could be seen for several miles. Alice Chan, owner of the Sea Garden, said she, too, was waiting to learn the condition of the building’s interior. “I’m trying to find out myself. They don’t tell me anything,” she said.
Liem received a shipment of about 5,000 goldfish Monday, and an additional 4,000 or so two weeks earlier. January, with its celebration of the Chinese New Year, is an especially busy time, he said. The Chinese consider goldfish good luck for the coming year. He stocks dozens of other varieties too: koi, corydoras catfish, Siamese fighting fish, lionhead orandas. Some, like the koi and the orandas, are cold-water fish and have a chance of surviving, he said.
Liem’s daughter, Rachel Mar, of Lynnwood, said her father was very quiet on Christmas. The family tried to reassure him that whatever happens to the shop, they will help him start again.
“This is his life. It’s what he loves,” she said.
As a scrum of reporters and photographers surrounded him Thursday on King Street, Liem sounded philosophical.
“I feel bad, but I have no choice. There’s nothing I can do.” He pushed at the bridge of his heavy glasses and pointed to the sky. “It’s God,” he said.
Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

Thousands of fish feared dead following fire

Copyright © Joe Mabel, Creative Commons
The 100-year-old building on South King Street in the Chinatown district, houses eight businesses — one of them an aquatic shop owned by Djin Kwie Liem, which has been trading there since 1979.

But a fire broke out in the vacant upper part of the building at around 4pm on Christmas Eve, causing extensive damage. Dozens of fire trucks attended the scene and people living in surrounding homes had to be evacuated. 

Liem was only allowed back into his ground floor shop shop briefly on Thursday to pick up a few personal belongings, cash and receipts.

There's no power to the building following the fire, so the shop's tanks are without heat, oxygen and filtration. Liem had to use a flashlight to see what he was doing. He told The Seattle Times that he couldn't bear to look into any of the tanks to see the fate of the thousands of fish.
Liem had only received a shipment of about 5,000 goldfish the day before the fire, and an additional 4,000 a fortnight earlier, ready for the Chinese New Year. The Chinese consider goldfish good luck, so this is a particularly busy time for him.

He estimates that 20,000 fish may have been lost, including tropical specialities such as Fighters and Corydoras along with fancy goldfish and Koi.

Liem knows there's little hope for the tropicals, but hopes that some of the coldwater fish could still make it.

Fire officials say the upper areas of the building are so damaged that the cause of the blaze may never be known and business owners have been told it could be weeks before they find out if they can ever reopen.

The same building was the site of the Wah Mee massacre in 1983 — the deadliest mass murder in Washington State history — when 14 people were gunned down by three men in the downstairs Wah Mee gambling club. Thirteen died, but the survivor was able to testify against the gunmen.