Firefighters can't determine cause of Wah Mee fire

by: Maria Guerrero and Casey McNerthney, KIRO 7 STAFF Updated:

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SEATTLE —

The cause of the two-alarm fire that destroyed the Wah Mee building in Seattle's International District can't be determined, Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean said in a Thursday afternoon news briefing.

Firefighters saw flames from the roof when they arrived late Tuesday afternoon, but because the building is close to collapsing, investigators won't be able to reach areas that could indicate the cause.

The building, at 669 S. King St., was the site of the Wah Mee massacre where 13 people were shot to death in February 1983. The building, which had abandoned upper floors, was constructed in 1909, records show. Dean said the building was red-tagged Thursday, and people who had possessions inside were given only five minutes with firefighters to retrieve what was most important.

The area near Seventh Avenue and King Street has been closed since Tuesday and had a 50-60 foot perimeter in case the 104-year-old building comes down. The owner of the building that burned said he had no idea what started the fire.  He said the top three floors, which were condemned by the fire department years ago, were securely padlocked.

Seattle fire says they don’t believe there was any kind of restoration or construction going in the building at the time of the fire. The owner of the building says there wasn’t any work being done and says no one lived upstairs, which was deemed unsafe and uninhabitable many years ago. No injuries were reported

Click here to see photos of the fire. No injuries were reported.

Businesses right under the fire were forced out when the fire sparked about 3:45 p.m. Tuesday. Dozens of nearby residents were also evacuated. Apartments sit right next to the now-gutted building on King Street, and the Red Cross says it housed 46 people on Christmas Eve at a shelter at the International District’s Community Center.

"I've never spent a night like this," said Rosa Armas. "A Christmas like this, terrible."

Nearby restaurants also had to evacuate Tuesday night. Harry Chan’s Thai Tung lost thousands of dollars in business because Christmas Eve is one of his biggest nights of the year.

Further details on the Wah Mee Massacre are found in this HistoryLink.org essay by Todd Matthews:

On February 18, 1983, three armed, young Chinese American men enter the historic Wah Mee gambling club in Seattle's Chinatown. They walk away with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, leaving 14 people for dead. One of the victims survives and testifies during what were arguably the three highest-profile trials Seattle has ever seen.

The Wah Mee was a historic speakeasy and gambling club that dated back to the early 1920s. The club, a romantic, classy enclave patronized mainly by semi-affluent restaurant owners and business people in the Chinese community, hosted some of the highest-stakes gambling that could be found in Seattle and, for that matter, in the entire Pacific Northwest.

Winners went home with tens of thousands of dollars after a single night of gambling. Beat cops supplemented their income by tolerating (for a price) illegal gambling in Chinatown. Police allowed the exclusive, Chinese-only members of the Wah Mee Club to preserve an integral part of their history -- gambling -- while also profiting police officers.

In early 1983, a young, 22-year-old Chinese American immigrant named Willie Mak racked up a several thousand-dollar gambling debt with one of the gambling clubs where he worked. In an effort to clear his debts, Mak singled out the wealthy Wah Mee as the target for a heist-and-killing like no other in Seattle.

Mak enlisted the help of his old high school classmate, Benjamin Ng. Ng's extensive criminal record dated back to his years as a juvenile. Mak also enlisted the help of Tony Ng (no relation to Benjamin Ng) -- a shy, quiet, reserved 24-year-old Chinese American immigrant who worked at his parents' restaurant in North Seattle.

Shortly before midnight on February 18, 1983, the three young men entered the Wah Mee Club. They hog-tied and robbed 14 victims before opening fire.

Wai Chiu “Tony” Ng was released from prison in October and transferred to federal custody. He is expected to be deported to China.

Ng was not convicted of robbery and assault, not the Wah Mee murders. The King County Prosecutor’s Office was among several people who objected to Ng’s release.

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