Execs in pipeline blast get prison time
It was a sentencing hearing marked by overwhelming sadness and an unusual request.
Four years ago this month, a gasoline-pipeline explosion in Bellingham killed two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old man.
Yesterday, one victim's parents asked a Seattle federal judge to spare former Olympic Pipe Line's top executive, found guilty of willful safety violations that took their son's life.
Those whose lives were profoundly changed by the tragedy came together in court to help determine how justice should be applied. Not all the families agreed.
Tears flowed as parents described the unexpected loss of a child. Other family members sobbed as they watched their fathers get sent to prison, the first time in the pipeline industry that executives have been imprisoned for violating pipeline-safety laws.
Intent to send a message to the pipeline industry, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein gave a six-month prison term the maximum to Frank Hopf, 55, the executive in charge of Olympic when its pipeline ruptured on June 10, 1999.
The explosion that followed fatally burned Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas as they played in a Bellingham park. Liam Wood, 18, fishing in a nearby creek, was overcome by fumes and drowned.
Rothstein sentenced Ronald Brentson, 52, who formerly managed
Olympic's control room in Renton, to one month in prison and one
month of home detention. She placed Kevin Dyvig, 46, a computer
operator whose negligent actions contributed to the 225,000-gallon
gas spill, on probation for one year for a misdemeanor. "I think this
case has to be taken to heart," she said, explaining the prison
sentences. "If this case is not taken to heart, then this tragedy is
Nine months ago, Wade King's parents Mary and Frank King, owner of a car dealership agreed to meet with Hopf in their Bellingham home.
Hopf, who was accompanied to the home by his attorneys, John Wolfe and Amanda Lee, said he wanted to tell them he was sorry. But before a get-acquainted session began, Mary King who describes Wade as "her life" grabbed Hopf's hand and pulled him upstairs to Wade's room, where nothing had changed since his death. Everyone else followed.
"I wanted him to see it," Mary King said in a Tuesday interview.
Hopf saw Wade's baseball glove, the Ken Griffey poster, the book bag and other things a 10-year-old boy collects.
The encounter overwhelmed Mary King, who broke down, falling into Hopf's arms. He held her and tried to console her. Everyone in the room sobbed, she said.
From that moment came a 2?-hour discussion at the Kings' dining-room table: about Wade's life, about the need for better pipeline safety, about what they might do, together, to improve an industry.
They met several more times, including June 10, the anniversary of Wade's death, when Frank King and Frank Hopf went to a Mariners game together because Wade loved baseball.
On Tuesday, the Kings gathered with Hopf and his wife in their attorneys' office to explain why the Kings planned to urge Rothstein to sentence Hopf and Brentson to little, if no, prison time.
"I think this is what Wade would want," Mary King said. He would have told her, "Mom, they've suffered, too," she said.
Frank King said that more good would be accomplished if he and Hopf traveled the country, speaking to the pipeline industry about improving safety rather than having Hopf sit in prison.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm still angry," King said. But at some point, "something positive helps us to hang on to our son."
Hopf, who stepped down as Olympic's general manager after the fatal
explosion and now works at one of Olympic's parent companies in
Houston, saw the idea as a way past his agony. Every day since the
explosion, "It feels like I have been almost under house arrest," he
said. "I did not want to go out. It's dominated my thinking."
Hopf also met with the parents of Stephen Tsiorvas and Liam Wood, but they didn't share the Kings' feelings. They joined federal prosecutors in urging Rothstein to send Hopf and Brentson to prison. "It's a nightmare to me to think about my son lying in the hospital dying," Katherine Dalen, the mother of Stephen Tsiorvas, told Rothstein yesterday.
Rothstein agreed prison was appropriate. She said she wanted to send a message to the pipeline industry that individuals would be held accountable for safety violations. "You can't hide behind a corporate front," she said.
She pointed out that Hopf, upon release, could speak to the industry with King. She also ordered Hopf to perform 200 hours of community service. She gave Brentson and Dyvig each 150 hours of community service.
Rothstein noted that Brentson and Hopf admitted to felony charges that they failed to provide adequate training. But "that was not all that was wrong," she said. "There was a lot that was wrong."
She was referring to accounts that Hopf, after being told of pipeline weaknesses, decided not to inspect the portion of pipe that ultimately ruptured and that Brentson had not fully dealt with repeated valve problems before the spill.
She also scolded executives of BP, Olympic's new majority owner, for firing Brentson on Tuesday for being a felon.
The judge described Brentson as a "good man" who could best serve the company by remaining and working to improve safety. She said she would ask the London-based firm to reconsider.
Lawrence Peck, chairman of Olympic's board, promised Rothstein he would ask BP to review its decision.
Rothstein also accepted a plea agreement reached by Olympic to pay $6 million in criminal fines and $5 million in civil penalties. Shell, a minority owner of the company where Hopf now works, will pay $15 million in criminal fines and $10 million in civil penalties.
Olympic earlier agreed to spend $15 million to improve its safety. Shell will spend up to $72 million throughout the country to bolster pipeline inspections.
Olympic, Shell and other parties agreed in April 2002 to pay $75 million to settle wrongful-death lawsuits brought by the boys' families. The firms settled with Wood's family for an undisclosed amount.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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