Five members of a family, including three young children, were killed early Sunday morning after their getaway cabin on the Hood Canal burned to the ground, according to Jefferson County fire and police officials.
Five members of a family, including three young children, were killed early Sunday morning after their getaway cabin near Hood Canal exploded and burned, according to Jefferson County fire and police officials.
The family was from Monroe and used the 250-square-foot cabin frequently, officials said. Police are trying to determine the cause of the explosion and fire, investigators said Monday.
“There’s no reason to suspect foul play, but we obviously need to do a thorough investigation,” Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Haas said Monday afternoon. “If this was a horrible accident, we want to do whatever we can to make sure this type of thing never happens again.”
Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) combed through the site Monday, joined by the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab. Both were called in to support local investigators, according to ATF spokesman Jason Chudy.
Authorities have identified the deceased adults as Jenny and Jerry Drake, both 42, and their three boys, 11, 8 and 2, Haas said.
There was a propane tank on the property, Brinnon Fire Chief Tim Manly said. Investigators have not figured out whether the tank exploded first, causing the fire, or if there was a fire that caused the explosion, he added.
Neighbors reported hearing an explosion at 1 a.m. Sunday, and told dispatchers that the whole hillside was on fire and the cabin was gone, Jefferson County Undersheriff Art Frank said in a statement on Monday.
Dave Gardner, who lives just up the hill from the explosion site, said he was asleep in his trailer when, “I hear a hissing noise, like a propane tank. That’s what woke me up.”
He ran outside to check his own propane tank.
“Then I heard the valve go off and flames going up. It was like a tea kettle sound, a really bad tea kettle,” he said.
He said flames shot up at least 10 feet past the 90-to-100 foot maples and Douglas fir trees in the secluded vacation spot. The first fire truck arrived 10 minutes after he called 911, he said.
Gardner then drove down the road to wake up neighbors. He was afraid the fire would jump the road. “Then we’d all be trapped. There is only one way out,” he said.
He said he was interviewed by ATF agents, who wanted a detailed description of what he remembered.
He described the cabin that blew up as a two-story structure on blocks, with an open square room and a loft.
Gardner said that earlier he had seen the family’s children playing.
Carleen and Duane Nelson, who own property on the street, said on Tuesday at the scene that they first saw the family coming to the cabin last spring, when they began building there. They often saw the kids playing outside.
“They’d come up on weekends,” Duane Nelson said. “This is a great place to get away and just be a family.”
The cabin is one of many structures on the property in the 600 block of Salmon Street in Brinnon, Jefferson County, a community of 800 that borders the Olympic National Forest on the west and Hood Canal on the east. “Welcome to Shrimpfest,” says a sign outside the town about its Memorial Day Weekend festival.
Manly, the fire chief, said he can’t recall a fire in the community that had resulted in such a loss of life.
He said it took an hour to put out the fire, and the firefighters began their initial investigation. Upon spotting the burned bodies of an adult and a child, he said, “They stopped and called ATF and the Washington State Crime Lab.” The three other bodies were found during a systematic search of the debris at the fire scene, officials said.
“I still don’t understand what happened,” said Larry Hartley, who’s lived in the neighborhood for nearly five decades. “When I heard about it I was totally shocked.”
Hartley works putting in gravel roads in the small lots in what is called Olympic Canal Tracts, a subdivision that advertises as having “a private 40-acre beach with clams, oysters and geoduck, a boat launch with dock, a club house on the beach, two playgrounds, a covered picnic area on the Duckabush River and many other amenities for our members.”
Many owners — as was the family that was killed in the explosion — used their properties for weekend and vacation getaways, said Hartley.
These are modest dwellings, with a two-bedroom home selling for $122,500, and a 9,000-square-foot lot going for $32,000.
Hartley said he had been working on a gravel driveway in the property that exploded.
“There were always children around here playing,” he said.
On Monday, all that Hartley could do was go under the “SHERIFF LINE — DO NOT CROSS” yellow tape, talk in low tones to what appeared to be friends or family members, and once again repeat, “I don’t understand.”
Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf and reporters Evan Bush and Jessica Lee contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of ATF spokesman Jason Chudy.