The TV cameras and newspaper photographers all descended Tuesday on the Tacoma Rescue Mission.
It was a picture no one could pass up — a large crane carefully removing the top of the mission’s signature lighthouse, a 6,000-pound beacon that had stood atop the 15-year-old building since it opened. In a press release, the mission described the lighthouse as “a symbol of hope for people experiencing dark times.”
That’s pretty dramatic stuff. And it made for a pretty captivating visual, which is one reason it ended up on the front page of The News Tribune.
But what’s happening deep below the Rescue Mission is far more important to the needy population the organization strives to serve and to the city it calls home.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
You can’t see all the trouble, but you sure can smell it.
And next week Tacoma may start to feel it.
The sewer line at the mission appears to be leaking, and the 103-year-old organization might have to shut down its services for a while.
Here’s what we know for certain: The Rescue Mission is sinking, literally. Since late 2011, according to executive director Mike Johnson, the ground under the building along South Tacoma Way has settled as much as five inches in some spots.
It’s this sinking that led to the removal of the lighthouse, after an inspection revealed that the structure was no longer safe. If a seismic event were to occur, according to the experts, the “symbol of hope” was likely to topple.
That’s not good.
The sinking is the reason the Rescue Mission is currently snarled in a lawsuit with Sound Transit.
The mission claims the settling ground, most of which happened between late 2011 and late 2012, is a direct result of construction of Sound Transit’s commuter rail line, which runs just behind the organization’s property. During the decade before Sound Transit laid its tracks, they say, the building never had a problem.
Sound Transit, meanwhile, “does not believe our construction activity caused the damage ... based on a thorough review of design and construction documentation, on-site inspections and observations,” according to spokeswoman Kimberly Reason. It’s Sound Transit’s belief that the Rescue Mission “did not construct its building in accordance with its own designers’ recommendations.”
According to Johnson, damages could be as high as $12 million.
Needless to say, there are a lot of lawyers involved at this point and no clear conclusion in sight.
Whatever caused it, the Rescue Mission is settling.
On a recent tour of the facility, Johnson, who was named executive director in November, pointed to cracks in the building’s facade, floor and walls.
The door to the giant walk-in freezer no longer seals, he says, because of the way the ground has dropped. They’ve had to replace the big metal hinges just to get it to shut. A pool of water seeping under the door confirms something isn’t right.
But back to the smell.
The most recent bad omen at the Rescue Mission came Monday, when a contractor preparing for the lighthouse removal started complaining of a noxious odor that seemed to be coming from a small patch of grass just outside the southeast corner of the dining room, where the most significant settling has occurred.
The grass, Johnson told me, felt “spongy ... as if we didn’t have enough on our hands.”
A plumber was called, and a camera was deployed down a pipe that runs under the area. While the results weren’t 100-percent conclusive, Johnson says the pictures that emerged suggest a developing crack and sewage leak.
So this week the Rescue Mission says it will be forced to shut off its water for at least part of the day to confirm what the smell and soggy grass already point to. Without water, the Rescue Mission can’t operate, meaning the day-services the organization offers won’t happen.
“There will be 100 folks in here, normally, during the day,” Johnson says. “And they’re all going to have to be gone.”
If a crack in the sewer pipe is to blame — and, if you’ve smelled it, it’s hard to fathom that’s not the case — Johnson tells me the mission will most likely have to shut down for an entire week while it’s fixed.
That means the roughly 200 people who sleep at the mission’s emergency shelter and in addiction recovery beds every night will have to go somewhere else.
While Johnson tells me that under no circumstance will the mission simply kick this vulnerable population to the curb, he also admits that, as of right now, he doesn’t know exactly how they’ll manage. Tents and portable toilets in the parking lot are a possibility, he tells me, and he’s not joking.
“After 103 years, you don’t just close the door,” Johnson says.
That’s good to hear. But what do you do?
As the ground beneath the Rescue Mission’s building continues to sink, it’s a question one of Tacoma’s most important homeless service providers must figure out.
And as the growing cracks throughout the building make clear, unfortunately, this week is probably just the beginning.