It was probably the little boxes holding the snakes, stacked carefully under a tree far from the inferno, that made me think the arsonists were amateurs. As I watched the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture (CUH) burn the morning of May 21, 2001, I wondered who would torch 20 years of research and plant and book collections, yet take the time to save a couple of pet snakes? Anyone who would attack a horticulture building devoted to ecological research and public education must be confused or acting on a deranged whim, I thought. But I was wrong.
Any such illusions, except perhaps of Earth Liberation Front's naiveté on choice of target, were dispelled last week. On the seventh anniversary of the burning, FBI agents and federal prosecutors assigned to the case met with those of us who had worked at CUH on the day our building was burned down.
After Briana Waters' conviction for the crime, Special Agent Ted Halla called UW Associate Professor Sarah Reichard "out of the blue," she says, and offered to meet with staff, faculty, and students for a de-briefing. More than 30 people crowded into one of the classrooms at CUH this May 21 to hear what he had to say. Afterward, we gathered together for a survivors' party in the new Merrill Hall Commons.
If the idea of a survivors' party years after the fact seems a little much, you have to picture the violent destruction of May 21 and the long and demoralizing aftermath. I woke up to a radio news report of the fire. I called my staff as I was driving in and had to park blocks away, beyond police barriers. As I walked to the scene of the fire, I fretted that one of us had left a teapot plugged in and caused an electrical fire. What else could have caused it?
Those few on staff who knew ELF had broken into CUH during the WTO protests, cutting down raspberry canes in a clumsy attack on UW professor Toby Bradshaw's research, immediately suspected arson. Soon enough, with FBI crime scene tape draping the building and an accelerant-sniffing Rottweiler on the scene, we understood, however shocking the idea, that the fire had been deliberately set. It took several more days before it sunk in that this was domestic terrorism — 9/11 was still four months away — and terrorism of any sort was a distant notion, particularly on a sunny May morning on a college campus.
Here's what I wrote in my column "Plant Talk," published shortly after the fire in The Seattle Times' Pacific Northwest magazine:
One of the most difficult moments of the week was going back into the glass-littered, soaked and horribly smoky library, garbed in a hard-hat to protect from the falling ceiling, and realizing, finally, that all the library shelves, tables, chairs, desks and computers were ruined. There is nothing to be saved.
Little did I know at that sad moment that it would take three years for UW to re-build Merrill Hall, and that the tepid and sometimes even obstructionist response from UW administrators would cause me to leave my job managing a library I'd started eighteen years earlier.
As faculty, graduate students, and current and past staff gathered together last week to watch Agent Halla's PowerPoint presentation of events leading up to the arson and the subsequent investigation, I'm sure we all felt like survivors of a plot more carefully planned than we could ever have imagined. Halla explained that ELF decided to concentrate its efforts on genetic engineering after the WTO protests, for they felt that messy event was a victory for them. The irony is they believed popular sympathy would be on their side in a fight against genetic engineering, although the destruction of a university outreach facility, built with private funds, earned them negative press. A couple of cell members were passionately against genetic engineering, the rest just went along, and the tragic result was that they burned down an entire public horticulture center because a Forestry professor working in the building did research into the genetics of fast-growing hybrid poplars. One of the many ironies is that the goal of Bradshaw's work was to save old-growth forests, and that his research trees grown in a nearby greenhouse were undamaged by the fire.
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