Islander falls from downtown roof into abandoned cistern

An island man sustained serious injuries last week after he fell from a downtown rooftop between two buildings and crashed through wood covering an old cistern.

An island man sustained serious injuries last week after he fell from a downtown rooftop between two buildings and crashed through wood covering an old cistern.

The incident occurred after he reportedly climbed up to the roof of Sporty’s, traveled across the roof of Island Paper Chase (the former liquor store) and apparently was planning on crossing to The President of Me, which is part of The Hardware Store Restaurant building. There he fell 16 to 20 feet into a narrow space — less than 2-feet wide — between the buildings. When he landed, he broke through the wood covering the long-abandoned cistern, ending up in the water below.

Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, Vashon Island Fire & Rescue was called to assist. Later, Interim Assistant Chief Bob Larsen confirmed that the department responded to the call regarding the fall, rescued the man and arranged to have him flown to Harborview Medical Center because of the extent of his injuries.

The man, 33, was released from the hospital on Friday, according to a Harborview spokesperson.

On Thursday, Melinda Powers, the owner of The Hardware Store Restaurant, said her business was closed at the time of the incident and that she learned about it the next morning from members of the fire department, who came by to inform her. She added she was greatly surprised to hear the news.

“I could not believe it when they were telling me what happened,” she said. “It is unbelievable that it happened, that he did it and where he landed. I am totally in shock that the whole thing happened.”

Powers said when she bought the building more than a decade ago, the area around the cistern was fully accessible, but that she walled it off and put in a small access door to the area. She added that the door blends into the surrounding siding, does not have a handle and had to be pried open with a tool for access. Furthermore, she said, the area beyond the door had been blocked and the cistern covered with wood. There is no entry to the site from the front of the building, and the door is not readily visible from the alley.

“It is safe. It is secluded and covered. No one would know it is there,” she said.

Later in the day, Powers said she just had the door to the cistern screwed shut to further increase the safety of the area.

Powers added that she feels bad for the man’s injuries and what he went through, but noted that he was trespassing when he fell.

“This was a freak accident,” she said. “It was caused by him, not neglect on anybody’s part.”

She said she had noticed some people coming by, searching for the site and that she is considering putting up a “no trespassing” sign.

“I do not want people coming to look for it,” she said.

The day after the incident, a public Facebook posting by Larissa Clark, the man’s ex-wife, briefly explained what happened and included photos of the area. She noted she was concerned the cistern posed a risk for children. The post drew considerable attention, with some supporting her for commenting publicly and others criticizing her.

In a follow-up conversation, Clark said she posted about the incident because she felt it was important to do so.

“If I hadn’t spoken up, imagine the outcry,” she said, commenting on what might have happened if someone fell into the cistern in the future.

She acknowledged that her former husband was in the wrong by being on the roof, but she said she wanted to see further security measures on the ground to prevent other accidents. She went to the site last Wednesday, after the incident, she said, and expected the area to be fully secured, but the door to the narrow space with the cistern was open. She said she believed the door should have been locked at the time, and she expressed additional concern. Later, after learning Powers had the door screwed shut, she voiced appreciation.

“I am thankful to hear that the danger to our community has been promptly secured,” she said.

For her part, Powers said that the door had been open after the incident because the man’s fall and the rescue effort created some damage to the area, including to the door, and that a contractor had been in and out, as had others, to complete the repairs. Once those tasks were accomplished, she said, the door was screwed shut.

“I feel we have covered all the bases,” she said.

The little-known cistern has likely been in place since before 1925, according to Water District 19’s General Manager Jeff Lakin. He noted that the water district was formed that year and installed its first water infrastructure in the downtown area at that time.

Meanwhile, at the fire department, Larsen, who has been a member there for nearly 30 years, said he does not recall another incident when a person has fallen into an abandoned cistern or well, though animals have. He added that many people ask how many such abandoned water structures there are on the island, but he said he does not have the answer.

“I suspect we do not know about all of them,” he said. “If you are out walking in the woods, you stumble on the ruins of old houses. Those folks had to get water somehow.”

At King County’s Department of Environmental Permitting and Review, Director John Starbard said county regulations regarding old cisterns vary with their size and location. Permits are needed for large cisterns of 5,000 gallons or more; cisterns with a volume less than that but easily accessible by the public might require fencing, a cover or signage, he said, but smaller cisterns that are not easily accessible — which he said he expects in this situation — are not regulated.

“If there were a logical risk to the public, even a small one, we would require some kind of protection,” he said.