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Dramatic 911 calls paint scene of fatal Fairhaven fire

Eyewitness accounts prompted expectations of multiple people trapped

Ladder trucks on 11th Street fight a fire from above the Terminal Building in Fairhaven Saturday night
Ladder trucks on 11th Street fight a fire from above the Terminal Building on Dec. 16, 2023, in Fairhaven. Multiple bystanders called 911 about the fire, reporting people trapped on the second floor. (Photo courtesy of Esther Stewart)
By Isaac Stone Simonelli Enterprise/Investigations Reporter

Multiple bystanders calling 911 about a fire at Fairhaven’s historic Terminal Building in December reported people trapped on the second floor, unable to escape a blaze burning below, according to audio of dispatch calls released to Cascadia Daily News on Monday.

Accounts of the eyewitness callers present a dramatic image of what firefighters faced upon arriving at the late-night fire, which claimed the life of 39-year-old restaurant owner Nathaniel Breaux. His body was recovered in what was left of the structure 10 days later.

Based on those reports, arriving fire crews expected multiple people to be trapped in the building, Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Hewett told CDN Monday, Feb. 26. Breaux was later revealed to be the only person trapped in the building at the time.

“I think it’s all office buildings,” one caller said. “Oh my god! No, there are people upstairs. There are people upstairs.”

“Are they able to get out?” dispatch asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” the caller responded.

“There’s people inside the building that are trying to get out, they’re stuck,” another caller told dispatch.

Wails of sirens can be heard in the background along with the sound of glass shattering.

In the audio files, the gathering crowd calls for people to break the windows of the building. (Though that may feel intuitive, Hewett suggests that bystanders who encounter a structure fire refrain from doing so.)

It was immediately apparent that the crews were dealing with a two-alarm fire. The battalion chief called in backup, effectively doubling the manpower and resources dedicated to the blaze, Hewett said.

While one fire crew worked on knocking the flames down, other crews attempted to go up the stairwell to search for victims on the second floor.

“We sent multiple crews into the building to the point where we found the floor starting to collapse and then had to remove ourselves from the building so we didn’t create more victims,” Hewett said.

When making a split-second, cost-benefit analysis of a situation, an incident commander must determine whether or not it is possible for a victim to still be alive in a space. The (east) cafe-side of the building, with massive amounts of fire billowing out of the windows, was deemed unsurvivable, Hewett said.

“That’s a very hard thing for our crews,” Hewett said. “We’re the one viable option for getting somebody out of there. They will do everything they can right up to the edge to try and save somebody.”

Crews thus focused on areas where a live victim could still be found, Hewett said.

The Terminal Building in Fairhaven from an aerial view has most of it's roof burnt down.
The Terminal Building in Fairhaven, pictured on Dec. 19, 2023, was gutted by a fire that started just before midnight on Dec. 16. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

The investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing. 

“They are still working on compiling information from multiple witnesses and awaiting results on items that were sent for forensic testing,” Hewett said. “At this time, the cause remains undetermined.”

There is no timeline for when the department will receive results from a Washington State Patrol lab.

Fire investigators have been unable to determine the exact point of origin of the deadly fire, Hewett said. However, it appears to have started on the first floor toward the back of Harris Avenue Cafe. 

The amount of fire damage to the 135-year-old building and the subsequent, careful disassembly of the structure in search of any victims ultimately hampered investigators, Hewett said in a previous interview.

Breaux, who was reported missing the day after the blaze, owned both the Harris Avenue Cafe and The Old Independent Coffeehouse on the ground floor of the building.

In a statement released in December, Breaux’s family members said the two beloved Bellingham establishments were “his life.”

“His passion for healthy, wholesome food was visible in every dish, where almost everything was made from scratch and sourced from local vendors,” the family said. 

Breaux’s 2-year-old daughter, Izabella, “was the center of his universe,” family members said. He is remembered for sharing his passions for biking, music, art and outdoor adventures with his daughter and anyone else who knew him.

Restaurant owner Nathaniel "Nate" Breaux
Restaurant owner Nathaniel “Nate” Breaux with his daughter, Izabella. (Photo courtesy of the Breaux family)

Among the audio files received by CDN in a public records request were calls from Breaux’s girlfriend and one of his best friends. Both were worried about him.

During the search for Breaux, fire officials and contractors were forced to balance the urgency of locating the cafe owner with the need to ensure the safety of workers, as well as the integrity of any potential evidence.

“Ultimately, we’re just hoping to help the search and rescue guys facilitate what they need to do in the shortest amount of time possible while keeping everybody safe,” explained Tyson Card of Boss Construction, which was hired to perform the demolition.

Speaking at the scene in December, Card also pointed out that his team was working to avoid disturbing the fire investigation.

Contractors ultimately pulled down multiple walls and removed significant amounts of overhead material to allow investigators to safely enter the building and locate Breaux’s body.

Bellingham has lost three historic buildings to fire in the past four years including the iconic Terminal Building, which was the oldest continually occupied building in the Fairhaven district and on the National Register of Historic Places.

CDN fire coverage timeline

Dec. 17: Community laments loss of historic Fairhaven landmark

Dec. 17: Cafe owner confirmed missing after Fairhaven fire; owners ‘devastated

Dec. 18: Bellingham community rallies around those impacted by Fairhaven fire

Dec. 19: Terminal Building owner: ‘Damage is beyond repair’

Dec. 21:  Nathaniel Breaux presumed lost in Terminal Building fire, says family

Dec. 22:  Bellingham’s Terminal Building, destroyed in Fairhaven fire, had 135-year history

Dec. 22: Contractors make progress in demolition of Terminal Building

Dec. 26: Timeline of how a fire ravaged a historic Bellingham building

Dec. 26: Body recovered Tuesday in fire-ravaged Terminal Building

Dec. 28: Fundraisers to help Fairhaven fire victims exceed goals

Dec. 29: Local artists’ paintings burned in Fairhaven Terminal Building fire

Jan. 2: Body found after Fairhaven fire confirmed to be cafe owner Nate Breaux

Jan. 14: Bellingham blazes, one fatal, put fire code and safety checks in spotlight

Isaac Stone Simonelli is CDN’s enterprise/investigations reporter; reach him at; 360-922-3090 ext. 127.

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