Grim mysteries come to M.E.'s office
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Investigators work to identify victims and narrow the list of missing people Wednesday inside the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's office in Everett.
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Deputy Director Dennis Peterson speaks inside the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office in Everett on Wednesday.
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
A special tent is set up outside the intake area at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s office in Everett to handle decedents coming from the Oso mudslide area Wednesday.
EVERETT — A small army is working hard to untangle dozens of sad mysteries. They are trying to identify mothers and children, fathers and families.
Everyone's waiting for answers about the dead and missing from the March 22 Oso mudslide.
At the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office, the names of the known dead and missing are carefully listed on large poster-sized sheets of paper taped to the walls.
Sorting out who belongs on what list — and sharing the news with their loved ones — has been the work of forensic pathologists and seasoned detectives, specially trained dentists and other highly trained experts.
The slide tore into homes below like a "big grinding machine," said Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff's Office who is now helping with the slide effort. Despite early hopes, it is unlikely there were any air pockets for survivors, Troyer said.
Autopsies determined that all 29 of the people whose bodies have been recovered so far died as a result of blunt force trauma caused by the slide, Troyer said. None drowned or succumbed to other causes, he said.
Figuring out the identity of each victim has required a mix of science, detective work and deep compassion, said Dennis Peterson, deputy director of the medical examiner's office.
Each Oso landslide victim enters the medical examiner's headquarters in south Everett through a cavernous tent. The structure was put up when it was thought the number of victims could pass triple digits. It's where the bodies are cleaned in preparation for autopsy.
"Literally, we give them a warm bath," Peterson said.
Medical examiner staff gather details about the dead to find out who they are. Everything is recorded. The clothing they wore, and their jewelry. Their tattoos and birthmarks and hair color.
"Everything has to be meticulously logged and it has to be correct. We cannot make a mistake," said Heather Oie, operations manager at the medical examiner's office.
The medical examiner uses scientific methods to make identification. That means fingerprints, comparing X-rays and dental records. Eventually, it may involve comparing DNA.
Each day up to five dentists trained in forensic odontology have been poring over dental X-rays for the victims and dental records of the missing, looking for evidence to make a match.
As of Wednesday evening, identifications had been made of 25 victims. Among those still not identified, investigators believe they have leads or a path toward confirming identification on all but one person, Troyer said.
The victim is a man with gold crowns on all of his molars, Oie said. No other information about him is available.
Meanwhile, the list of presumed missing has been reduced to 13. "In theory all 13 of those people could be deceased or they could be alive," Troyer said.
The numbers are likely to change again, but he doesn't expect by much.
Major crimes detectives from the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office have since last week been working 12- to 15-hour days, bringing focus to efforts to identify the missing.
In the days immediately after the hill fell, officials said the number of reported missing jumped from 18 to 176. It actually was much higher — 531 reports to call centers of people possibly missing as a result of the slide, not counting the duplicates, Troyer said. Detectives used databases, worked the phones and knocked on doors to quickly weed out 489 names.
Sheriff's Sgt. Shawn Stich normally spends his time leading detectives who investigate homicides and serious assaults in this community. "Missing persons and death investigations — that's what we do," he said.
This is different.
His team has been to the slide site. They have an understanding of how jumbled everything became when the homes and Highway 530 were swallowed by the mud.
"I've never seen anything like it," Stich said of the investigative efforts mounted since. On Wednesday morning, he was working from a borrowed desk in a briefing room at the medical examiner's office, now a makeshift detectives' bullpen. Behind Stich, an Excel spreadsheet filled a projection screen, listing names and other details about those still being sought.
Sheriff's detective Brad Walvatne had a phone pressed to his ear. His caller had information on one of the people he's been trying to track down.
So many people are working on so many tasks that the surest way to keep everyone in the office informed is through up-to-date briefing posters hanging in a central hallway.
On Wednesday, those included lists of names of people still being sought, maps of the slide area and a partial list of people and agencies who are owed thanks for coming to the 12-member medical examiner's office in the face of the county's largest-ever mass-casualty event.
A lot of work remains.
Exhaustion competes with urgency.
Everyone knows that loved ones are waiting for word.
"The wait is hard," Oie said.
Scott North: 425-339-3431, firstname.lastname@example.org
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