In slide debris, a tattoo signals end of one family’s sad search
Even as hope of finding people alive in the Oso mudslide’s massive debris field grows dimmer, relatives of those in its path have talked about the importance of recovering the remains of those lost.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The brother-in-law of Mark Gustafson, an Oso man who had been listed as missing in the March 22 mudslide, said he was 30 yards away on the debris field Wednesday morning when Gustafson’s remains were found.
“It’s not official yet, but we knew it was him because of the tattoo on his shoulder,” said Doug Smith, a brother-in-law from Galena, Alaska, who said nearly a dozen relatives had been helping in the search for two weeks.
Gustafson was among 10 people still reported missing Wednesday by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. His name has not been released by the medical examiner as one of the 36 confirmed fatalities.
Relatives say he was a construction worker who lived alone, and he had one daughter and three sons.
Other families continue looking for their own loved ones, a grim and grueling task.
Some relatives of the missing have traveled great distances and have been working long hours, starting from the first day family members were allowed to assist in the search, several days after the slide.
“They’ve been out here participating in every way,” said Bellevue Fire Lt. Troy Donlin, a spokesman for the Joint Information Center at Arlington. “They’ve been using hand tools. I’ve seen at least one operating an excavator, doing everything the other searchers are doing.”
Even as hope of finding people alive in the massive debris field grew dimmer with each day, relatives of the missing have talked about the importance of recovering the remains of those lost.
Some who have come from outside the area are staying with family or friends. In addition, Red Cross shelters in Arlington and Darrington have provided shelter, food, basic health services and emotional comfort to those affected by the slide.
“There are other families going through the same thing,” said Gustafson’s sister, Patty Gustafson. “We try to keep each other’s spirits up. It’s just so sad.”
Smith, Patty Gustafson’s husband, said working in the area being searched “is hard and it can be dangerous. There’s mud, there’s what looks like 30 or 40 truckloads of logs. There’s debris, there’s household goods, there’s garbage, propane tanks — everything.”
He said one of Gustafson’s sons had to withdraw from the search after stepping on a nail and getting an infection. Another son, who has been stationed in Italy in the military, was able to get a Red Cross flight to the States and was on the scene even before the Smiths could get down from Alaska.
Smith said Gustafson’s body was found at midmorning Wednesday near a lone spruce tree that didn’t get knocked down by the slide. Some of Gustafson’s belongings had been found near that spot earlier, so search crews and family members believed they were getting close.
“When they found him, they called us over, and we were able to see the tattoo,” Smith said.
Smith said Gustafson’s three sons, a son-in-law and other relatives had assisted in the search. “Other families are up here, too. I met some, but I’ve met so many people, emergency workers, medical examiners and others I can’t keep everything straight,” Smith said. He said family members are focused on the task at hand.
Patty Gustafson said family members have been staying with her brother’s friends in Arlington. “They’ve been a godsend,” she said.
Jack Broom: email@example.com or 206-464-2222