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Collateral Damage
Fiery cowards will not destroy the real 'eco' spirit

Valerie Easton is library manager at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture, which was the target of an arson fire May 21. The Earth Liberation Front, described by the FBI as domestic terrorists, have claimed responsibility for setting this fire and a number of others as part of its attack on research and businesses they oppose. Authorities continue to investigate.

Val Easton surveys the destruction of the Master Gardener office at the Center for Urban Horticulture. This is where gardeners brought plants and pests to be identified and to receive advice.  
I'd been looking forward to writing a column about dark-leafed dahlias this week, but at the moment I'm not too interested. I have no books or catalogs to refer to anyway, as they are all charred, soggy, sooty or destroyed.

I can't believe the terrorists who firebombed Merrill Hall at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture on May 21 meant to harm 17th-century herbals, rare seedlings, pressed plant specimens and my files on summer-blooming bulbs. I find it nearly too sad to bear that the destruction of the horticultural library where I've worked for 16 years could be thought of as "collateral damage."

Please notice that I don't call the people who attacked our beautiful building in the middle of the night eco-terrorists. These cowards have tried to destroy the greenest place I can imagine - a center nurtured and supported by the public, and dedicated to teaching, research and education about plants and gardens. We're eco. I shrink from imagining what they are.

I've had hundreds of calls and e-mails, and most of you are asking, "What about the books?" The library is closed indefinitely; the building is mostly destroyed. 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. Even the four oversized, leaf-print reading-room chairs that were just delivered the Friday before the fire. We haven't paid for them yet.

The good news is that all the books, as well as files, journals, catalogs and videos, were rescued in the first 48 hours after the fire, so we have a good chance of saving nearly all of them. We got to the rare books first, and found them smoky but blessedly dry. It was surrealistic to be standing in water and foam, trying not to breathe the foul air, loading up sooty and wet books (more than 10,000 of them) and carrying them to safety. We got more than half the collection out before the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms descended upon the place the second day and claimed all of the building as a crime scene. They aren't the kind of guys you want to argue with.

I'll be eternally grateful to the kind and quick-moving firefighters who rescued the rest of the books after we discovered that the humidity had risen to a dangerous 86 percent. We only had a couple of hours to prevent irreversible mold and mildew damage on thousands of wet books.

Dozens of volunteers showed up, grabbed gloves and wiped down each sooty book. Others helped sort the merely smoky from the sopping, and cleaned them accordingly. A contractor (company motto, "If It's Wet, We'll Dry It") flew in from California to load the wet books into a freezer truck to take to San Francisco for freeze-drying. In a few weeks, all the books will have spent time in an ozone chamber to purge the acrid odor, and we'll begin the long process of hand-cleaning. At that point we'll know how much of the collection is salvageable. I'm assuming the vast majority will be. I hope so, as the contractor tells me the recovery will cost at least $150,000, which is the most money I've ever spent in a couple of days.

I've never been on a disaster scene before, nor dealt with such a quickly changing situation in which important decisions have to be made with scanty and shifting knowledge. I know many of the incidents are seared into my mind - the type of images to appear as you first close your eyes at night. I'll always remember the burly, cinder-streaked firefighter who rushed up to me as I arrived at the center very early Monday morning, having heard about the fire on the radio. "I think we've saved the library!" he said, his voice full of emotion. The firefighters had carefully tarped much of the collection to protect it from water damage. Can you imagine such care in the midst of a blazing fire?

Other highlights - and one lowlight:

The accelerant-sniffing Rottweiler from Canada who played like a puppy when not busy tracking down the source of the fire.

Teams of firefighters rushing out the door of the library, pushing greenhouse carts laden with dripping books, then gently stacking them in precise rows for students and volunteers to clean.

Toby Bradshaw, whose office was the target of the fire, keeping a singed souvenir dollar that the firemen extracted from his incinerated desk. It reeks of gasoline.

Graduate students donning masks and gloves to work in the rubble side-by-side with library staff to get the books out as quickly as possible.

An entomologist gratefully carrying her collection of weevils to safety.

Hearing from a UW administrator that she was sorry about her office's insufficient response, but it was due to lack of experience with such situations and the administrator's own natural reticence.

The impressive kindness, patience and hard work of all the people in uniform, from the UW police to the Seattle Fire and Police departments, as well as those from the UW Facilities Office, whose personnel skillfully steered us through the first days of crisis. (Thank you, Rick Cheney.)

Standing in my filthy clothes and hard hat, wearing three microphones on my lapels, with little boxes and wires hanging off my waistband, and the press shoving those phallic-looking mikes and big cameras in my face and asking me questions that seemed designed to make me break out in tears. It didn't happen. Not publicly, anyway.

I've learned many lessons, including the importance of doing whatever is needed at the moment (not an easy lesson for an organized, list-making librarian), how to deal with wet and smoky books, and the importance of wearing a mask in recently burned buildings. But most significant of all, I've learned how to help others. Before this week, I'd have called or e-mailed someone going through a similar trauma. You know, a sincere "Just give me a call if there is anything I can do to help." But I learned from the hundreds of people who saved us. We had no idea what was needed minute-to-minute, let alone the time or working phones to call for help.

Volunteers arrived with bottled water, muffins, juice, sandwiches and ice-filled coolers to store them in. They stood on their feet for hours cleaning books and packing boxes. They hugged us. But mostly they just showed up and went to work. And for this lesson in love, sympathy and effectiveness I'm very grateful.

Watch out, you terrorists. We're winning.

Valerie Easton writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" from Sasquatch Books. Her e-mail address is

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