Truth Survives the Flames

1987 EvCC arsonist arrested with sentencing May 13.

The+Gary+Parks+firefighter+memorial+near+EvCC%27s+Parks+Student+Union+building.

Colin Burns

The Gary Parks firefighter memorial near EvCC’s Parks Student Union building.

Some secrets can be uncovered, but others are lost forever. For 34 years the identity of the arsonist responsible for the destruction of a life and a community’s heart remained a secret to the general public, like the knowledge of a book lost to flame. Then, Elmer Nash Jr. confessed that he set the fire on Feb. 16, 1987 that killed firefighter Gary Parks and destroyed EvCC’s library, and was charged with murder in the first degree.

 Much has been said, and rightfully so, about the tragic death of Parks and the grief it caused. Though nowhere near as irreplaceable as a life, much else was also lost.

Sharon Ralston, EvCC’s Executive Assistant for Accreditation, Assessment, Grants and Institutional Research, has been a full-time employee of the college for 39 years and remembers the Trojan Union Building. “At the time we had a culinary arts program, and the actual restaurant that we had to go to was in that building. Connected with that program they opened a little bakery,” says Ralston, going on to reminisce about the delicious cottage dill rolls that “everybody loved” and she would share among the office.

 There was a cafeteria, pool tables, and a grill where hamburgers and fries were served. From that area, one could view the central courtyard, where the Feather Star stood. The flames swallowed all but that sculpture, managing only to singe the tip, and it stands today outside Parks Student Union.

To the left, The Feather Star survives among the flower bed. The Student Union Building that bears Gary Parks’ name stands as a reminder of what was lost. (Colin Burns)

Ralston remembers the fear and uncertainty that came in the wake of the arson, as does Cathie Wamsley, another employee who worked at EvCC at the time of the fire. Questions like “What do we do now?” and “Where do we go from here?” hung in the air like smoke. Cascade Hall had been important to so many. “There weren’t as many students who would take one or two classes then go off to work back then,” says Wamsley.

Chief among the spaces lost was the library: home to 48,000 books and 19,000 periodicals, according to EvCC’s website. The college’s records and archives were destroyed. All information contained therein was lost. The history of the college became a secret, and a connection with the past was severed. Old Clippers and annuals were donated by private individuals, but no detective nor anyone else can string words together from soot and rubble. 

Heather Jean Uhl, Library Department Chair and Acquisitions and Cataloging Department Supervisor, who was not a staff member at the time, knows a library can be the heart of a community. “We think of them as our second homes,” says Uhl of librarians and their libraries. “As a teenager, my local library- that was my safe space. That was where I could go to be myself.” Free to access, libraries offer a window into “a world that is completely inaccessible any other way […] It’s so much more than just a room with books in it.”

So much lost, and the blame for it lay at Nash’s (and his accomplices’) feet. Having been 12-years-old at the time of the crime shocked both Ralston and Wamsley, as well as many others. Some have wondered what the appropriate sentence is for someone who may not have understood the ramifications of what he was doing at the time. Yet on the other hand, as Wamsley points out, “they kept that secret among the three of them for all of these years, knowing exactly what happened, exactly what they did.” Both Ralston and Wamsley agreed that Nash must be held accountable for what he did. 

After so much destruction, some things can still be salvaged from the wreckage. Wamsley remembers watching the clean-up from the third-floor lounge in Rainier Hall. “There was a young kid- we talked about this all the time- there was a young kid operating one of the big heavy equipment,” she recalls. “He was young, but he was so amazing to watch, because any time he came across even a burnt book or anything, he would just reach down and so gently touch those items and pick it up and move it. They were so respectful of the books and everything that was in the library.”

Sentencing for Nash was originally set for Friday, May 7th, but the defendant did not appear in court. He was then arrested again, and sentencing is now set for tomorrow.

Some secrets may be lost forever, but answers found can give comfort and closure. Wamsley says she was “relieved” charges had been brought forward, and President Daria Willis thanked Everett firefighters and police in a statement issued by the college, noting that “The fire destroyed the heart of the campus and has affected the college for generations.”  

The doors of the new Learning Resource Center, which will house the new library and cover 65,000 square feet, are set to open in April 2023. With this case closed, a new chapter of Everett Community College history lies beyond those doors.