Frank King had dropped in from work last June 10 to check on the carpet being installed in his Bellingham, Wash., home. His 10-year-old son Wade asked for a lift to a bicycle shop, but King, now 52, had to head back to his auto dealership. So Wade skateboarded down the block to play with a friend. Minutes later the Kings' carpet installer noticed smoke billowing from the wooded park across the street—then towering flames. While Frank headed down the street to find his son, Mary King, also 52, watched in horror from the yard. "I thought the whole area was going to blow up," she recalls.

In fact, Wade and his friend Stephen Tsiorvas, 10, were in the midst of a gasoline-fed inferno. A pipeline had burst, dumping at least 277,000 gallons into the creek where the boys went to play. Terribly burned, both boys died within a day. Shattered by the death of their son, Frank and Mary King—who hadn't been aware of the pipeline buried just 500 feet from their home—were shocked to learn that fuel pipelines, many of them decades old and in poor condition, run through thousands of residential neighborhoods across the country. Now the Kings are determined to find out why the accident happened—and to keep the same thing from happening elsewhere. "They killed my son," says Frank. "We needed to know why."

What happened was that Wade and Stephen, longtime friends who had scrambled down the trail to pristine Whatcom Creek many times, had started playing with a fireplace lighter they found, unaware that the creek was filled with gasoline. Suddenly they burst into flames. With his entire body except the soles of his feet badly burned, Wade somehow made his way back toward home along a dirt trail, where his frantic father found him. "Here's this little boy, badly burned, just racing home where it's safe, and Dad and Mom will fix it," says Frank.

There was little Frank could do for Wade or Stephen, who was carried from the blaze by another friend, but offer words of reassurance. "I thought everything was going to be okay, just because they were conscious and talking," says Frank. "But the EMTs' mouths just dropped open when they saw them."

The boys were airlifted to a Seattle burn center, where Wade died at 2 a.m. and Stephen five hours later. "We feel so old now that Wade's gone," says Mary King. "He kept us young."

When Wade was born in 1989, Frank and Mary, a homemaker who works part-time at a Gap store, already had a daughter, Tracey, and a son, Jason, now 28 and 26 respectively. The couple doted on their youngest child. Mary traveled with him to England and France, and both had accompanied him to San Francisco for his 10th birthday just six days before his death. "We were able to see things through his eyes," says Frank, "that we didn't stop to take a look at with the older kids."

They had planned to send him to a Christian summer camp and then travel with him to both Disney World and Hawaii. Instead, they spent the summer trying to understand the disaster that had killed Wade, Stephen and Liam Wood, 18, who was fishing down the creek. They learned that the damaged pipeline, owned by Olympic Pipe Line Co. of Houston, was part of a nearly 400-mile underground line laid in 1965. Though 165,000 miles of similar fuel lines traverse the country, the federal government relies on pipeline operators to inspect them—on no specific timetable. As it happened, Olympic had inspected its line just three years before the Bellingham tragedy, detecting three defects in the area of the accident, but hadn't made any repairs.

Appalled, the Kings testified at a congressional hearing in October, urging stronger federal regulations. Previously, they and Stephen's family had filed suit against Olympic, hoping to spur pipeline companies to increase safeguards and to determine exactly what happened on the day of the fire. The company's president, Fred Crognale, told PEOPLE that he feels sympathy for the families and that the company is "moving forward to address all major subjects of pipeline safety." So far, Olympic employees on duty that day have refused to answer questions from criminal and federal investigators. As for the Kings, they'll keep the pressure on. "There isn't anything we wouldn't do for our kids," says Mary. "Wade would want us to be doing this."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Meg Grant in Bellingham

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  • Meg Grant.