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.
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“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: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes