Why Mayor Paul Schell Canceled 1999’s New Year’s Eve Space Needle Party


The year 1999 was a complicated one for Seattle. On one hand, all of the business signs were positive. The computers were flourishing and creating a wild sense of business. People were making money looking at their new phone.

The first sign of true trouble flashed at the end of November, the last day of the month. Seattle was hosting the World Trade Organization’s international convention. It should have been a bounty for hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, and tourism. The opening day came with bright November sunshine — it had been raining continuously for nearly two weeks. Everyone went outside, to see what this WTO might be. I closed the bookshop for a moment and watched the parade in our shirt sleeves.

There were people dressed as turtles, people dressed as crabs, people wonderfully showing their voice, parading their causes.  But beneath the simple parade, there were some very dark forces. It turned out to be an almost unimaginable fiasco. By the early afternoon, shops were looted and ransacked, constant sirens and alarms, streets and conventions were overrun.

Riot police were brought in from every district. By the week’s end, there were 10,000 national guard troops, fully armed as if from a Star Wars cast lining all of downtown. The air was thick with tear gas, nothing was open, everyone was either terrified or disgusted. It turns out, Seattle, with its deep labor history, was a poor choice for such a self-insulated, smarmy group as the WTO. 

Two weeks later, in mid-December, on the Canadian ferry M/V Coho, a U.S. Customs inspector, Diana Dean, stopped a car as it was about to deboard at Port Angeles. It was the last run that early evening on the crossing from Victoria BC. There had not been any intelligence reports suggesting threats of any sort. The car was a brand new green Chrysler 300M Luxury sedan, rented a day earlier in Vancouver. The inspector would say simply that the driver, Ahmed Ressam, a 32-year-old Algerian, was acting “hinky.” She asked him to get out of his vehicle.

Another inspector was called and searched the car. In the spare tire well, the inspector found ten green plastic garbage bags, filled with 118 pounds of white powder, later found to be urea, used in explosives and fertilizer. There were also two olive jars of nitroglycerine and four operational timing devices. Ressam was escorted from his car to be interviewed, but he broke free and ran five blocks to an intersection, attempting then to force his way into a car stopped at a traffic light. He was re-captured and booked into custody at the US Border office.

It was determined that the explosives would have produced a blast 40 times that of a devastating car bomb. In the Chrysler, there were road maps to Los Angeles, and brochures for both the LA Airport and the Seattle Space Needle. Ressam was found guilty three weeks later in Los Angeles of 12 offenses, from smuggling to terrorism to false identification.

Curiously, he was not sentenced for four more years — he became a source for counter terrorist information. Later he would be sentenced to 22 years in prison. Ressam revealed that there were al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the US, plotting attacks, that prisoners in Guantanamo were involved in the plot, and he identified Zacarias Moussaoui as being a senior member of the al-Qaeda plan to attack the US soil. All of this was learned months before 9/11 and was included in a brief delivered to President Bush on August 6, 2001, entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US,” one month before 9/11.

The Ressam arrest was in all of the nation’s papers. But the implicating scale of what was found, and known, was not in the reports and soon it was not even news. No one was concerned about imminent attacks on the US from al-Qaeda. The bigger concern involved the upcoming end of the millennium. It was not clear how the computers were going to respond to the change from the 1900s to the 2000s. Would garage doors still open, would the clocks roll over to a new century, would health systems automatically adjust, would automation know what to do with time?

People bought candles and light bulbs and flashlights, just in case there was a major hitch. No one could be quite sure that the computers, and the internet, were ready to handle the change. Meanwhile, it was a buoyant time. People were making money daily with their investments, which they would check multiple times each day. 

My two children were going to the Space Needle for the grand Millennial New Year’s Eve celebration. The Mayor, Paul Schell, and his wife Pam, had invited them, as our two families were friends. After the WTO fiasco, it would be a treat to have some dressed-up celebration time and get to a new century. But it was not to be.

Later, I asked Paul, but what happened? What actually happened? He said, it was complicated, and this is the story he told me:

A week before New Year’s Eve, FBI Director Louis Freeh called Schell, apparently telling Schell he should cancel the Space Needle events for New Year’s Eve. Freeh told Schell: Look, we do not know if this guy Ressam was coming to Seattle but he did have Space Needle literature. And he did have enough explosives to be a threat. And he did come to blow something up. (As it turned out, the main target was the LA airport.)

The real problem, Freeh said, as Schell recalled, is that the FBI, was not looking for a terrorist. We had no intelligence at all about threats of such sort. We do not know if there were 50 such cars out there, crossing all the borders then. We are on high alert now, but we were not on any alert then. We do not know who is driving around, trying to make trouble. You should probably shut down the Space Needle for New Year’s Eve, Freeh continued, and you will have to do it without being able to say anything about our conversation. Call it an act of caution. If people knew all that we are learning, and do not know, there would be a panic.

Mayor Schell told the FBI director that his friend’s kids were both looking forward to coming up and turning on the New Year’s lights. As Schell remembers it, Freeh then stopped him cold. He said to Schell, knowing what I know, I would not let my kids come. That was it, end.

Soon I received a call from the Mayor’s office, saying that the Space Needle would not be holding a celebration, and my children would sadly not be coming to the Seattle Center. There would be a public announcement soon. Schell took the fall, being labeled “timid,” “cowardly,” even “absurd.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post quoted Schell at the time saying the FBI “can’t assure us there is no risk.” The New York Times quoted Schell as saying: ”Although we are comfortable that Seattle is not a target, we cannot assure people that there is no risk.”

Paul and Pam came to dinner for New Year’s Eve and it was a quiet, private affair. The computers did just fine, as they had said they would, the lights stayed on, everyone had by now surplus candles and batteries. Yet when Schell ran for reelection in 2001, he lost in the primary.

And people continued to closely check their stocks and their bonds, making money as they worked. The newspapers gleefully satirized the Mayor — first the riots, then the fear. I did not learn all the details of the FBI conversations until years later. They were never published.

One year after that Millennium Evening, in February 2001, there was a destructive earthquake in Seattle. George W. Bush was elected president in 2000. September 11’s World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were eight months away. The first days of a new century.

Peter Miller
Peter Miller
Peter Miller runs the Peter Miller Design Bookshop, in Pioneer Square, in the alley between First Avenue and Alaska Way. He is there, every day. He has written three books, Lunch at the Shop, Five Ways to Cook, and How to Wash the Dishes. A fourth book, Shopkeeping, A Manual, will be published in Spring 2024, by Princeton Architectural Press.


  1. As it turned out, Mayor Schell could not win. He was criticized for being naive and complacent about the WTO gathering, yet when he was the soul of caution about the New Year’s threat, he got more brickbats. Seattle sure does enjoy showing mayors the door.

  2. I think of Paul Schell the way I do George Bush Sr. – I opposed both at the time, and they both look a lot better in retrospect than I gave them credit for back then.

    In Schell’s case – I appreciate the fact that while he was one of those “idea” guys, he’d walk a spitballed proposal back pretty quickly once skeptics started poking holes in it. Compared to Nickels’ subsequent unwillingness to let any of his crappy pro-developer/money proposals go AND his quite deliberate effort to install cronies who wouldn’t say no to him, Schell really does seem a lot better in retrospect.

    (That being said, I wish Schell had listened to the staff member I called in desperation after the first night of Mardi Gras 2001 – I told my contact in the administration that while I understood how the WTO riots left them gun-shy about bringing in SPD, they needed to ignore all of that and go in hard against the chaos and nascent violence I saw that night, which culminated in the tragic death of Christopher Kime a few days later. Oh, and I’m just gonna add that the way Nickels used that as a campaign cudgel was positively Trump-like and grotesque).

    • I’d forgotten that awful night …. how police officers described their frustration watching the violence unfold… not allowed to go in and make arrests. How some cops afterward donated overtime wages to poor Christopher Kime’s family, saying ‘I didn’t deserve this.’ It seems like a century ago. Norm Stamper ended up resigning as police chief over it. And he seems to have genuine regrets over the way it was handled.

  3. One point of clarification: Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper resigned — retired — following the WTO riots and not after the Mardi Gras disaster. He makes this plain in his 2005 book, “Breaking Rank.” It’s part memoir and part expose of the dark side of policing.

  4. I was moving into a new house on steep East Capitol Hill just west of the Arboretum in November of 1999. I very much remember the rain that month. After getting some initial help one Saturday afternoon from some friends with moving the heavy stuff, I spent the rest of the month slowly moving the remainder of my things from my old house in Wedgwood one carload at a time in the back of my ’83 Swedish Brick wagon most evenings after I got home from work. The rain was relentless that month. I finally wrapped that task up at the end of the month and began settling into my new (to me) house.

    One of my first nights there I could hear the sirens, cannon booms, helicopters and bullhorns coming from the WTO protest as they pushed protesters back up onto the hill. The smell of tear gas (or something) even drifted over to my side of the hill. Standing on my front deck that November night looking up at the sky I could smell it.

    I walked up Aloha to the top of Capitol Hill that evening and over to Broadway and Roy, near the Deluxe Tavern and saw the National Guard (???) had shut down Broadway. Up until then, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the upcoming WTO event. Of course, I was aware of the events and subsequent protests, but I had other things and tasks on my mind that month. The rabbit ears on my TV didn’t draw in a signal from that steep side of the hill. I live about halfway up. I couldn’t watch the news if I wanted to. Eventually, a few months later, I picked up cable – Basic Cable – for the first time in my life. Most of my information on the WTO protests came from reading the online SeaTimes and PI at lunch at work and through the car radio during my commute.

    As Peter mention, a little over a year later the Nisqually earthquake shook the region. I was working at the giant aircraft factory in Everett. Even though the epicenter was south of Seattle, it shook and rattled the buildings 35 miles north. At first, for a very brief moment, I thought one of the large forklifts which occasionally passed the road next to our building was passing with a large aircraft structure or piece of tooling. But I never felt that kind of shaking or heard window rattling like this before. I was on the second floor. I looked out the office window and saw many people from the labs and high bays had spilled out into the parking lots. They were pointing towards us in the offices to get out.

    Eventually, the company sent us home early. The fire department needed to check and clear each building before allowing workers to return safely. It’s a huge campus with many large buildings. It was February and impractical to have people stand outside in the cold for maybe several hours while they went about this task.

    I got home while it was still daylight outside. I hoofed it down to Pioneer Square, mostly out of curiosity, to see what damage might have occurred. It was my first earthquake. On my walk back home, I stopped in Elliott Bay Books. It was still in Pioneer Square then and open. Upon entering the bookstore, my eyes teared up and I got into an unstoppable sneezing fit. I couldn’t book browse for long like this. I picked up a book and took it to the front checkout. I mentioned to the clerk my instant watery eyes, wheezing, and sneezing problem. I assumed it might be some musty contaminant in the old building shaken loose by the earthquake. She said it was probably the tear gas.

    “Tear gas?” I said.

    She mentioned the night before during the Mardi Gras riot a teargas cannister broke a window and found its way into the store. Great. More teargas.

    Of course, about seven months later, 9/11 occurred.

    One thing that has stuck in my mind the most from that period in Seattle is how quiet things got in my neighborhood for two brief “moments” in time. Both, the Nisqually earthquake and, of course, 9/11 shut down SeaTac for about a week or more. Before I had moved to East Capitol Hill, I had not realized how much it was impacted noisewise by SeaTac’s flight paths. For four years prior to moving to Wedgwood in 1992, I lived in the apartmentlands of west Capitol Hill, not far off the freeway. Airport noise was not a problem there. Freeway soot was in summer months.

    For those two brief periods, the total and swaddling quiet was amazing and very noticeable. Of course, the reasons behind this were devastating for so many. I’m sure it was the same for neighborhoods south of me, First Hill; the Central District; Beacon Hill, Burien; SeaTac; Des Moines; etc. Maybe even a few neighborhoods north of me.

    This accidental experiment was a stark reminder of how major regional airports are not two-dimensional layouts of runways, terminal buildings and supporting infrastructure and roads limited to their outlines on two-dimensional maps. But rather, they are 3D landscapes – and noisescapes – extending at least tens of miles beyond their terrestrial boundaries. I live at least 15 miles from SeaTac.

    Adding the third runway to SeaTac, theoretically, was like adding a half of a new major airport to that same 3D space. And increasing the noise pollution by another 50% for those of us under those extended, unseen runways.

    The time will come when this region likely needs additional airport capacity. And there will be an inevitable push to add runway or more capacity at existing airports. Simply saying it will only add a little more noise to an existing corridor isn’t true. It adds a lot more noise. It’s well past time to share the wealth in this region and let others share in the inevitable impacts.

  5. Yes I was in seattle during that era . I marched in the streets with my Union and thousands of other informed citizens protesting the coming evil of Corporate Globalization complete with its Outsourcing of Jobs, Blatant undermining of Democracy, and World owned and operated for the pleasure of a Powerful 1% at he the expense of us in the 99%. The Mardi Gras event was an actual Riot that somehow me and my wife to be escaped unharmed. Seattle went from ” Mayberry With Skyscrapers” to Front pages Worldwide in a month. If I would have known it was going to get this bad in the World ie Climate Disasters caused by Greed, Terrible Wars etc. I would have stayed out in the Streets!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.