April 8: the day the music died | Islander recalls being first responder at Kurt Cobain death scene 22 years ago

When the Seattle Fire Department got a call for an assault with weapons response at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East, Islander John Fisk had just gotten in for the 7:30 a.m. shift change. The paramedic who Fisk was relieving offered to take the call, though Fisk said he'd handle it and went on his first run of the day. It was a Friday, April 8, 1994.

  • Wednesday, April 6, 2016 8:28am

When the Seattle Fire Department got a call for an assault with weapons response at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East, Islander John Fisk had just gotten in for the 7:30 a.m. shift change. The paramedic who Fisk was relieving offered to take the call, though Fisk said he’d handle it and went on his first run of the day. It was a Friday, April 8, 1994.

“We had no idea who it was on the dispatch,” Fisk recalled. “None of us knew what it was at the time.”

The group of responders was initially sent to the wrong address. When they did arrive to the right place, police at the scene told the paramedics and engine team to slow down; the police and fire department had been called to this residence several times before. An electrician had found a body upstairs, though he initially thought it was a “life-like mannequin.”

The group made its way around the property, up to a greenhouse above the residence’s garage. Its two French doors were locked, so Fisk peered in.

“That ain’t no life-like mannequin,” he said to the police.

Fisk didn’t know it at the time, but he had just found himself at the heart of one of the biggest moments in Seattle’s history: the death scene of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. This Friday marks the 22nd anniversary of when Cobain’s body was found at the rock singer’s home in Seattle.

Though he was only there briefly, Fisk’s role as a first responder has since connected him to the grunge legend, as well as to the speculation that comes with Cobain’s case. Fisk was recently one of the featured speakers in Benjamin Statler’s 2015 documentary “Soaked in Bleach,” which focuses on the testimony of private investigator Tom Grant, who for years has called for the Cobain case to be re-opened.

Fisk downplays his involvement with the case, though a certain weight comes with being at the scene where a Seattle icon was found dead. Fisk was the first person to enter the greenhouse where Cobain’s body was discovered, and had to break a small glass panel on one of the locked French doors to enter the room. Fisk said it was immediately evident to the paramedics that this was a DOA. There was nothing left for them to do and they began to leave the scene. It wasn’t until the engine company officer called out as they were leaving — “Hey, you want the name?” — that Fisk double-taked and returned to the greenhouse.

Aside from knowing the Nirvana frontman had long, stringy hair, Fisk said no one among the first responders was familiar enough with Cobain to positively identify him on sight. Though he pointed out Cobain was recognizable despite a gunshot wound to the head. Near his body, they saw Cobain’s suicide note stabbed into a planter with a red pen. Keeping with crime-scene regulations, nothing was touched, though Fisk said there was no suspicion whatsoever it was a crime scene or any other foul play was involved.

“We were never approached by [the Seattle Police Department] for statements or anything,” Fisk said. “In a case of an obvious suicide, which from my limited experience with a crime scene, it looked like every other suicide I’ve seen.”

So Fisk and his partner took off, just before the media firestorm descended upon Seattle.

“I remember paying close attention to the news all that afternoon and evening as the reports came in,” Fisk said. “Surprisingly, we had almost no more interaction. We’d leave that scene and were ready for the next run. I had a regular routine shift, going on more runs and I worked until the next morning at 7:30 a.m.”

Aside from a short interview with the BBC and another for a book on Cobain, Fisk wasn’t really approached again about Cobain’s death. Nor did he really keep up with it until the summer of 2013, when a producer with “Soaked in Bleach” contacted him to speak in the film. The movie combines archive footage with documentary interviews and dramatic reenactments. The narrative is based off of Tom Grant’s experiences investigating the case after he was hired on Easter in 1994 by Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love.

Though police ruled Cobain’s death a suicide, the movie explores the doubts that have circulated since. Grant, a former L.A. County Sheriff’s detective, continued his own investigation and determined there was enough evidence to conclude that foul play could have occurred. Included in Grant’s reports is that Cobain injected three times the lethal dose of heroin, which raises questions whether Cobain would be capable to go ahead with his fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Fisk calls himself a bit of a skeptic when it comes to conspiracy theories, and says conspiracies seem to come up with any celebrity death. He reiterated to the “Soaked in Bleach” producers that he still believes the case remains a suicide.

That’s not to say Fisk’s stance on a few things didn’t shift after his experience filming and watching the finished reel of “Soaked in Bleach.” Fisk said he maintained suspicion about Grant’s motives working the Cobain case up until he met Grant during filming.

“My impression did change,” Fisk said of Grant. “He seemed like a guy who was generally feeling like there was a wrong that needed to be righted, not saying that something happened, but that it should’ve been investigated and it wasn’t.”

Fisk also took a more liberal stance on whether the Cobain case should be re-opened some two decades later.

“Being a huge conspiracy skeptic, my first impulse would be to say, ‘No.’ But after this whole experience, talking with Tom Grant briefly, hearing the story from the producers and the directors, watching the documentary, knowing what I know from the scene and the information that they exposed, I would say, ‘Yeah’ out of curiosity if nothing else,” he said.

“I still believe it was a suicide. But to me, one of the most compelling questions is, we see tons of heroin overdoses,” Fisk said. “To see Kurt Cobain and then hear that the level of morphine, heroin, in his system was as high as it was — and I’m not keen on the limits but I know what a lethal dose is — and the fact that he was on [three] times over the lethal dose, even for a hardened addict, that normally results in a level of unconsciousness almost immediately after injection.”

Fisk said he intentionally took a few steps back when the Cobain case was swept up by the media. Though in some instances when Cobain’s name comes up, he has been tempted to weigh in, particularly if he felt something was being incorrectly reported.

“There’s been multiple times when I’d listen to the radio and they’d get to talking [about Cobain’s death], and they’ll say something even about the response and I’m tempted to call in,” he said. “But I just can’t see that going well, so I just never did.”

Two decades later, the Cobain case remains as compelling as ever, and Fisk being the first person to walk into the room where Cobain’s body was found cements his role in any version of the narrative. But Fisk said it’s weird being associated to the story. He doesn’t talk much about it, nor does he bring it up in casual conversations. April 8 hasn’t registered differently with him, nor would he have been aware it had been 20 years since Cobain died had the producers with “Soaked in Bleach” not contacted him to be in their film.

“I certainly recognize it’s a big story, but it’s certainly not about me,” he said. “I had such a small role. It may seem like more of a novelty to others than it is to me. If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been someone else walking in there.”

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