At 1:43am on March 9, 2016, natural gas leaking from an abandoned line in the 8400 block of Greenwood Avenue ignited in an explosion that destroyed three businesses and damaged dozens more. The shock wave was so strong, residents who lived blocks away were shaken in their beds. The community rallied, though, and by the time the rest of the city was making its way to work, the recovery effort was already under way. While police and fire units cordoned off the area, staffers from the Phinney Neighborhood Association gathered at a cafe and discussed how to manage donations that were already pouring in from concerned residents.
The explosion was catastrophic for Mr. Gyros, Neptune Coffee, and Quick Stop, but the damage to other businesses was cosmetic. New windows, a fresh coat of paint, and they could reopen. Or at least, that’s how it appeared. “In terms of financial cost and emotional damage,” says David Giugliano, “it’s still the day after the explosion for us.”
Giugliano—better known to friends and customers as Davey Oil—left work happy on March 8. Tired, but happy. G&O Family Cyclery, the bike shop he and his business partner, Tyler Gillies, had opened in Greenwood almost three years earlier, was flourishing. In fact, they’d had so much trouble keeping up with demand for the electric-assist bicycles and cargo bikes they specialized in—not to mention the repair services they offered for those complex machines—that they were getting ready to expand. And then, in the middle of the night, those plans were blown to hell.
Despite being just two doors down from the explosion, G&O Family Cyclery was one of those businesses that looked—at least from the outside—as if it had dodged a bullet: The windows were gone and just a handful of bikes were destroyed. As it turned out, though, the building was a total loss, and it would be six weeks before Giugliano and Gillies could find a temporary location in which to reopen. Worse still, it was half the size of their original store, and they were about to enter the busiest three months of the year. After closing again in late December, G&O finally reopened in its permanent location, one block north on Greenwood Avenue, in February. But between moving expenses, estimated lost revenue, and wages they continued to pay their three mechanics, Giugliano says he’s out $400,000.
Which sucks, but that’s what insurance is for, right? Yet Giugliano and several other business owners say they’ve been stiffed. G&O has collected just $30,000 from its provider. The Angry Beaver, the hockey bar directly across the street from the blast, had to close for four and a half months—right in the middle of the NHL playoffs. Owner Tim Pipes says the closure cost him nearly half a million, and his insurance company has paid out less than 25 percent of that. If it weren’t for help from the Phinney Neighborhood Association, which cut him several checks from the recovery fund it established, he might not have reopened at all. In January, Pipes was still deciding whether to take further steps to collect what he believes he’s still owed for the damage to the bar and the stress he and his staff have endured.
The owners say one explanation their insurers gave for the paltry payouts was that they need to wait until liability for the explosion is confirmed. In other words, insurers aren’t willing to pay until they know whose insurance is going to reimburse them. A spokesperson for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, which is investigating the explosion, has heard that too and is unaware of another case in which insurance companies used such an excuse to delay payment.
Establishing liability wouldn’t seem to be difficult. In September the UTC released a preliminary report on the disaster that laid the blame squarely at the feet of Puget Sound Energy. The commission found that the private utility had improperly abandoned the line, leaving it active for more than a decade, and failed to perform annual inspections. And at some point the line, which ran along the exterior of the Mr. Gyros building, was damaged. The UTC recommended a $3.2 million fine.
Yet PSE denied culpability, and in January its lawyers were attempting to negotiate a settlement with the UTC. If that fails, a final decision on the utility’s liability may not be issued until August. And in the meantime, Giugliano and Pipes are left twisting. In an emailed statement, a PSE spokesperson says the utility is “committed to the businesses and residents of Greenwood” and hopes to “resolve any claims fairly and in due course.” As of January, it had received 10 and closed seven.
That’s not much comfort to Baltazar Soto. He and his wife, Christine Esparolini, owned Neptune Coffee, one of the businesses leveled last March. Soto showed up on Greenwood Avenue within 10 minutes of the explosion and began taking photos to document the damage but stopped soon after. “I was like, ‘What’s there to see? It’s gone.’ ” Though he won’t discuss the specifics of what he received from his insurer, he says it’s a fraction of what he and Esparolini lost. And even if they’re made whole again—in January they had begun the claims process with PSE—that won’t do much for the emotional hole they’re still dealing with. “You ripped away a career from us,” Soto says, leaving the you implied. “But you also ripped away our ability to benefit from years of work.”