The Painstaking Process Of Caring For Oso Victims

Apr 3, 2014

For many families of victims of the deadly Oso landslide, getting information about the fate of their loved ones has been agonizingly slow.

That's because the work by medical examiners to confirm the identities of the deceased is painstaking and requires time.

Therapy dog Paddington Bear savors the attention from National Guards who are helping the Medical Examiner’s office gather information about the victims.
Therapy dog Paddington Bear savors the attention from National Guards who are helping the Medical Examiner’s office gather information about the victims.
Credit KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

The work begins even before a victim arrives. Volunteers have been working around the clock to do the legwork that needs to be done, said Dennis Peterson, deputy director of the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's office in Everett.

Peterson spoke in a conference room that has been turned into a hub where detectives, National Guard members and health district staff are making calls.

“We’ve been contacting the family members by phone, gathering as much information as we can on the missing so when we have a decedent come in we’re ahead of the game with all the information," he said. They've been asking families for dental records, medical records, X-rays and for information about tattoos, or other  identifying marks.

The physical work of the medical examiner begins once the body arrives. Peterson emphasized that victims are treated with respect at each step in the process. 

The deceased first pass through a makeshift tent — an extension of the receiving area — set up to provide privacy and a place to wash them. Because of the nature of the disaster, they need to be cleansed of mud, fuel, debris and other contaminants.

From there, they're moved to the autopsy room where medical examiners fingerprint them, take dental records and body X-rays. They use these to compare against medical records to aid identification.

Examiners have determined that all the victims so far have died of blunt force trauma. None had been trapped in air pockets, or died of drowning, as some had feared.

Peterson said given the scope of the emergency, the work couldn't have taken place without the help of volunteers from King, Pierce and Skagit Counties. 

“This is something that has overwhelmed us," he said. "We’ve had a lot of professional help come in — doctors and techs — this is the largest event Snohomish county has ever seen.”

So far, they have been able to identify all but one male victim. Examiners have not been able to determine his age, but they do know he has had extensive dental work. They have not been able to match him to anyone remaining on the missing list.

They are still hoping to get information to identify him.