His family waits for answers. They try to find peace.
A quarter-century ago, Everett firefighter Gary Parks died in an arson at Everett Community College. The case remains unsolved.
Parks’ death haunts his family and the crews who shared a firehouse with a lost brother.
The memories of his life and his service are treasured.
The blessings, so short-lived, are bittersweet.
Parks’ widow, Kathy Parks, and one of his daughters, Jennifer Parks, live by the shore on south Whidbey Island.
The water is peaceful. It reminds them of Gary Parks.
The family spent many weekends sailing. It was how the couple planned to spend retirement.
Now, the serenity of the waves is an escape.
Sometimes, the hurt wells. It threatens to drown them.
Then they remember him and smile.
When Gary Parks died, there were few role models for a young widow, Kathy Parks said.
Her husband’s death was public, the grief shared, the funeral televised. There was no book about how to mourn while thousands watched and TV cameras rolled.
Kathy Parks was too strong to break. At least that’s what she told herself. She put on a stoic front.
When everyone was gone, the tears came anyway. They still do.
Memories suddenly open. She senses him everywhere.
She tries to fight her bitterness. She has the three grandchildren, and the house by the sea. She wishes Gary Parks were there to share them.
The fire broke out in the college library in the early morning of Feb. 16, 1987.
The firefighters were confident in their experience and training. They knew how to tackle flames.
That night, things went wrong, said Terry Ollis, the former Everett fire chief who has since retired. He was captain at the scene, where 100 firefighters battled the inferno. The EvCC fire proved bigger than all of them.
“We didn’t get lucky,” he said. “We weren’t sitting at the station talking about how it almost got us.”
Firefighting was different then, he said. There was no formal system to keep track of personnel.
Ollis positioned a firefighter and a probationary firefighter outside the building and told them to keep watch.
The college had a large atrium between the main buildings, near the library.
Ollis led a party of six firefighters into the atrium to start knocking down flames.
The crew included Gary Parks, an 18-year veteran of the Everett Fire Department, where he was known as “Parksie.”
“When we got there, everything was clear,” Ollis said. “There was no smoke, no nothing. It was just like walking outside at night. You could see the stars.”
Within 20 minutes, the fire and smoke curled through the ceiling. It was all around them.
The radios crackled with voices. Ollis had trouble communicating with the firefighters outside. The crew was running out of air. He asked for fresh packs.
The atrium filled with thick, black smoke. They followed the fire hoses outside, as they were trained to do. By then, Gary Parks and the others were “buddy breathing,” like divers, sharing what air they had left in their tanks.
“We could see the flames dancing around on the ceiling as we were crawling out on our lines,” Ollis said.
When they got outside, some of the men collapsed, gasping for air.
“We took a head count and knew right then that Gary wasn’t with us,” Ollis said.
Ollis wanted to go back, but someone grabbed his air pack away to stop him. Others tried to get back in, but they couldn’t get through the heat and flames.
Over the years, Ollis and others learned to tuck away the memories and the pain, he said.
He and Kathy Parks live just a few miles apart now.
They kept running into each other at grocery stores and restaurants.
After nearly 25 years, they recently talked about what happened. They shared their struggles since Parks’ death. It helped them both to understand.
In 1987, Gary Parks was 48. He was handsome and strong.
He had a nice mustache and was starting to lose his hair, Kathy Parks said.
Gary Parks grew up near Lake Washington and joined the Air Force. He was stationed in Germany during the Korean War. Through a Veterans Affairs program, he went to night school for fire science at EvCC.
The couple married in 1963. In addition to sailing, they often went skiing, on water and in the snow.
Ski boots then were more complicated than they are now.
Gary Parks always helped his wife get her boots on, she said. He’d tell her to stand still while he fastened buckles. He’d always yell “Yahoo!” as he slid down the mountain.
Denny Somerville remembers Parksie as a real character. They joined the department around the same time. They swore to serve 30 years.
Parks was a popular prankster. He also loved antiques. He would go to the dump and come back with more stuff than he dropped off.
They all loved diving into fires, said Somerville, who retired in 2000. He was at the college that night. He remembers some of the firefighters’ helmets melting from the heat as they escaped the building.
He remembers Parks being loaded into the medic car. The fire was everywhere.
When Somerville went home after the fire, he got on his tractor, he said. It had a chain drag he used to rake pastures smooth.
He drove for hours, dragging the rake.
“I just went round and round and tried to go over all this in my head, and get it straight in my mind what happened,” he said.
Warren Burns was the fire marshal on call that night. He’d only recently taken the post. He estimates he’d investigated fewer than a dozen fires before the EvCC arson.
Burns and Gary Parks were friends. Among other businesses, the Parkses owned a restaurant in Lake Stevens where firefighters liked to hang out. Burns and Parks went boating together. They shared lives.
They’d been told that firefighting was dangerous.
“You knew it was there, but you just always felt like you’d stay a step ahead of it,” he said.
His friend’s death reminded firefighters they are mortal.
Every spouse in the fire service thinks about the moment when their firefighter comes home from work, Burns said.
That night, the moment never came for Kathy Parks.
The investigation into the arson consumed days, then weeks.
It was a big case, but somehow, it seemed small compared to the loss.
Many of the firefighters were plagued by what-ifs and “a thousand second guesses,” Burns said. Many looked for someone to blame. Ultimately, they realized it wouldn’t stop the hurt. [To read about the investigative findings and the status of the case, click here.]
Time has helped, Burns said. So has knowing that the painful lessons from how Gary Parks died have saved lives. The department strengthened safety standards. It changed how it fought fires. Crews no longer allowed themselves to charge into burning buildings, safety as an afterthought.
It was the first line-of-duty death at the fire department in decades. They didn’t know how to handle it.
You never were supposed to show weakness, Burns said. Crews didn’t debrief. Emotions weren’t addressed.
Their grief broke through the firefighters’ code of camaraderie and bravado.
After Parks’ death, Burns would see firefighters sitting down, having a quiet moment. Men cried. Everyone got a pass.
Some firefighters used to drink to numb the stress and the horrors they witnessed, Burns said.
They couldn’t drink away what happened to Parksie.
The community he spent a lifetime protecting hasn’t forgotten Gary Parks.
The most visible memorial is understated and powerful, like the man himself.
Whenever Burns visits the community college, he cleans the leaves from the bronze firefighter’s helmet and jacket that sit on a bench along a promenade just northeast of the Gary Parks Memorial Student Union Building.
When Burns’ daughter became a student at the college, he told her the story of a lost brother.
Now, when she passes the spot, she, too, clears the leaves.
At a city ceremony scheduled Thursday, Kathy Parks expects to describe the last day she spent with her first husband. They ate Mexican food and went sailing around Hat Island.
Over the years, she tried to remind her daughters not to put their father on a pedestal. He was just a man, she says.
Their marriage was happy, she said. They supported each other and worked hard. They had fun.
His death left her reeling.
“It’s like losing a hand. Your hand is gone,” she said. “You can cope with one hand, but it’s not the same. You make mistakes. You drop things.”
When Gary Parks died, she was alone. One daughter was getting married. Another was in Aberdeen, trying to make her own life.
Kathy Parks remarried. That marriage soured over time. She divorced.
She tried to lift her head and keep on living, like Gary Parks would have wanted, she said.
She keeps busy. She paints, golfs and prays. She sings in the choir at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland. She’s taken in aging relatives, including several of Gary Parks’ family members, to care for them in their final days.
Jennifer and Kathy Parks talk with the quiet comfort of family accustomed to living together.
Time has diluted the memories, Jennifer Parks said.
Everyone in the family has a different kind of grief, she said, including her older sister, Erin Van Ry.
When her father died, it felt like his family did, too, Jennifer Parks said.
For years, she had nightmares about fires and burn victims. She still can’t watch movies where fires devour buildings.
Sometimes, Jennifer Parks feels stuck in the pain and anger.
Her mother gently nudges her along.
You can never be stuck, she said.
Kathy Parks eventually found that no matter how hard she grieved, life just kept happening — good things and bad things, she said.
“You just turn around and realize everyone’s still living,” she said.
The family wants to know who set the fire. For so many years, a piece of Gary Parks’ memory has been missing. There are holes in the puzzle.
Whenever people close to Kathy Parks are facing the end of life, she asks them to check on Gary when they get to heaven.
On clear days, Gary Parks’ family can see the Olympic Mountains from their home. The storms roll in. They watch the water. They dream of answers.
They search for peace.
A memorial is planned Thursday on the 25th anniversary of the death of Everett firefighter Gary Parks.
Parks died in an arson on Feb. 16, 1987, at the Everett Community College library. The case remains unsolved.
The memorial is planned for 3 p.m at the college’s Baker Hall, Room 120. A reception hosted by the firefighters Local 46 is planned immediately afterward.
Speakers are expected to include Parks’ widow, Kathy Parks, in addition to Mayor Ray Stephanson, Fire Chief Murray Gordon, college President David Beyer and former college president Bob Drewel.
Anyone with information that could lead to an arrest in the case is encouraged to call detectives at 425-257-8450.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org