Mudslide Work Takes Toll on Medical Examiner's Office

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After 10 days of working 12-hour shifts to identify 24 bodies from the mudslide, with 22 more still to come, the staff of the Snohomish County medical examiner's office is feeling the strain.

"It's taken a toll," said Deputy Director Dennis Peterson, who started his job just two weeks before a hillside in Oso collapsed and obliterated a square mile of the town.

"They deal in death, but they have feelings, too," he said. "They bring a baby in and oh my gosh, it’s hard."

This week, to deal with the emotional strain, the office will get visits from mental-health workers and from a chocolate Labrador — a brief but welcome distraction from the daily transfers of human remains from "the pile."

By Monday evening, the medical examiner's office had received 24 bodies from the March 22 disaster and had identified 18 of them. Six bodies remain unidentified.

They are extricated from the mud by search and rescue teams working with dogs, then flown by helicopter a half-mile to a landing pad where the medical examiner has set up a processing site that consists of a large tent and a refrigerated trailer.

With the help of the National Guard, a pathologist and an investigator record the coordinates of where the victim was found and photograph the body, which takes about a half hour.

"They deal in death, but they have feelings, too ... They bring a baby in and oh my gosh, it’s hard."

The trailer then takes the remains to the office in Everett, where help from the National Guard and surrounding counties has nearly tripled the ranks to 35.

The group includes four detectives from the sheriff's office who have been tracking down everyone on a list of the missing that has thankfully dropped from 176 to 30 in recent days.

A flag flies at half-staff on a log Sunday, March 30, 2014, with the slope of the massive mudslide that struck Saturday, March 22, 2014 in the background. The search for victims of the deadly slide continued Sunday, with crews searching both with heavy machinery and by hand.Ted S. Warren / AP

An investigator guides a group of volunteers in calling family members of the victims to get the details that could help them with identification: names of dentists and doctors or descriptions of tattoos or scars. All that information is entered into a database.

A team of local dentists that works on mass casualty events has been called in to assist with putting names to remains — which has been the only possible method in some cases.

"They just aren’t all in very good shape and we have to make sure," Peterson said. "If everything else fails, we would do DNA."

The medical examiner has given all 18 identified victims the same cause of death: multiple blunt force injuries. Peterson said in some cases, the cause is so readily apparent, autopsies have not been necessary.

Once there's a positive ID, an office chaplain and a sheriff's deputy visit the family and give them the news. After they leave, a staffer from the medical examiner's office calls to answer any questions.

"My staff is very compassionate and they know how to ease the pain of the families when they're talking to them," Peterson said.

Usually, though, the families don't have many questions about how their loved ones died.

The sight of the mud-smothered debris field where sturdy houses were mangled and huge trees were uprooted by the force of the slide has already given them those answers.

Now, Peterson said, "they just want to know that they have been found."

Meanwhile, estimated financial losses from the mudslide have reached $10 million, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday in a letter asking the federal government for a major disaster declaration.

Inslee said some 30 families need help with housing and personal goods. The projected losses include nearly $7 million in buildings and more than $3 million in their contents, according to the letter.