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Originally published December 25, 2013 at 9:20 PM | Page modified December 25, 2013 at 9:24 PM

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Lots of gawking, but no cause of fire yet at Wah Mee site

Engineers and building inspectors will investigate the site of the massive Christmas Eve fire in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, to determine the building’s risk of collapse and whether investigators can go inside.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Investigators haven’t even been able to enter the building — site of the 1983 Wah Mee massacre — to search for the cause of the massive Christmas Eve fire, but that didn’t stop onlookers from hypothesizing Wednesday.

“I think somebody wanted it gone because of its bad vibes,” said Chris Brabaut, a 34-year-old teacher in Vancouver, B.C., who was in town and wanted to check out the spectacle. “Buildings don’t start on fire on their own.”

Brabaut was among hundreds who gawked at the blown-out windows and charred brick of 665 South King St., wondering about the fate of the 104-year-old Chinatown International District building and its popular first-floor businesses.

Engineers and building inspectors will try to determine Thursday whether the risk of the structure collapsing is low enough to allow investigators to enter, officials said.

Until then, firefighters have blocked off a “collapse zone” around the building even as restaurants and shops across the street and around the corner remain open.

There were no reported injuries in the fire, which apparently started around 4 p.m. on the long-abandoned top floor of the three-story building. The blaze temporarily displaced 46 residents of nearby buildings, cut power to the area and otherwise rattled the neighborhood at the worst possible time.

Christmas is typically the area’s busiest time, said Donnie Chin, a business owner and co-founder of the International District Emergency Center.

This year, news coverage of the fire brought some curiosity-seekers but likely lowered business overall, Chin said.

Of course, the businesses in the burned building will be affected the most, because of fire and water damage, and because the city may now consider knocking down the structure, which was already on a “dangerous” list.

“It’s a shame,” Chin said.

The businesses include the Mon Hei Bakery, Sea Garden restaurant and Palace Decor & Gifts.

Matthew Masuoka, who works in the area, said he hopes the building can be saved.

“It’s part of Chinatown’s history,” said Masuoka, 27, a transit operator. “Maybe a bad part of history, but history.”

He was referring to the Wah Mee massacre, when three men entered the illegal basement gambling club in the early morning of Feb. 19, 1983, and shot 14 people. Thirteen died; one survived and identified the assailants.

The building has other history, too, as a neighborhood fixture.

Lt. Sue Stangl, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Fire Department, said it is too early to determine the building’s fate or the fire’s cause.

For now, Stangl said, firefighters will monitor the structure for signs of collapse and await the engineers.

“Everything’s kind of on hold until we can get into that building,” she said.

Staff reporter Tan Vinh contributed to this report.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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