Seattle's Speakeasy Cafe burns on May 18, 2001.

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 5/22/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3300
On the evening of May 18, 2001, the Belltown internet cafe, the Speakeasy, burns. The upper story of the building at 2nd Avenue and Bell Street is completely consumed in the two-alarm blaze, and the ground floor cafe is heavily damaged. Besides establishing a pioneer outpost on the Internet for those without computers, the Speakeasy also housed a bar, an art gallery, and a small, experimental performance space. Initial investigation targeted an overheated power cord being used to renovate the upper floor to house staff of Speakeasy Network.

At the time of the fire, a performance was being held in the back stage of the Speakeasy Cafe. Patrons were also in the front section of the cafe, some accessing the Internet on the computers and some lounging in the art gallery section. Some 40 or 50 adults and children were evacuated from the ground floor as the fire spread.

A Popular, Hip Hangout

The Speakeasy had been a Belltown cultural hub since its opening in 1995. Besides providing Internet access and the gallery space for visual artists, the performance space in the back of the building hosted plays, comedy troops, films, poetry readings, and dance and music acts. The Speakeasy charged performers only 20-25 percent of the door proceeds, and many experimental shows were held there because of the reduced financial risk to artists and promoters.

The building at 2304 2nd Avenue also used to house a pool hall called the 211 Billiard Club in the upper floor. The space was being renovated into a call center to accommodate Speakeasy's technical support staff and was under construction.

The show that night, titled "Eruptuous Revival #3," had a theme of fire and brimstone to mark the 21st anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980.

"Fire! It's bad. Get out now!"

At approximately 10:40, patrons leaving Speakeasy saw the fire and ran back in to tell the people inside. The fire was raging on the upper floors. All of the 50 or so people in the building, including a few young children, made it out without injury. It was a close call, however, as no fire alarm sounded. Thick black smoke from the upper floors started pouring into the cafe a couple of minutes after the fire was noticed, and the electricity cut out just as the last person shut the back alley exit door.

The flames shot 30 feet out the alley side of the building from the upper floors, scorching the Marvin Gardens Inn Apartments. Shattering windowpanes rained down on the alley and the sidewalk in front of the Speakeasy. The Fire Department arrived a few minutes before 11 p.m., and had the blaze under control within a half hour. The streets filled with spectators who came out from many of the restaurants and venues close to the cafe.

Two-Alarm Blaze

The Seattle Fire Department later reported that the fire was accidental, sparked by an overheated electric cord in a second floor bathroom. The construction workers had just coated the floor with a urethane finish, which fire Lt. Sue Stangl said could explain its rapid spread. Damage to the building was estimated to be about $750,000; and smoke, fire and water damage to the cafe and its contents, including the computers and artwork, was estimated to be around $150,000.

The fire caused the closing of the cafe. Speakeasy continued in business as an Internet provider.


Sources: Janet I. Tu, The Seattle Times,, May 20, 2001, p. B-1; Lewis Kamb, Seattle Post Intelligencer, May 21, 2001, p. B-1; Alyssa Burrows, eyewitness account.

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