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The Pacific Northwest heat dome event of 2021 killed hundreds of people. KNKX reporters Bellamy Pailthorp and Lilly Ana Fowler look in-depth at who died, why and how King and Pierce counties can better prepare for future heat waves.

A deadly message for a region unprepared for earth’s rising temperatures

This summer as a heat dome engulfed the Pacific Northwest at least 138 people died in Washington state.

KNKX sought to learn more about those who lost their lives, at least in part, because of the heat wave in those final days in June, which experts say would not have happened without climate change.

With the help of the Washington state Department of Health and by filing multiple public records requests for death certificates, KNKX compiled a list of all those in King and Pierce counties whom authorities identified and whose death listed heat as a contributing factor.

KNKX then tracked down families and friends connected to those who died when temperatures spiked to record-breaking heights.

William Clark is one of those people. His friend in Tacoma, Terry Duncan, passed away during the heat wave. Duncan is one of at least 24 people who died in Pierce County.

Tacoma Heat Deaths

Tacoma Heat Deaths

Hover over the location pins to see who died there in the 3-day heat dome event of June 2021.

Temperature

73.7ºF
93.1ºF
This heat map, commissioned by the Tacoma city council with funding from the Bullitt Foundation, shows the so-called ‘urban heat island’ effect. Temperatures measured block by block in July 2018 registered differences of up to 14 degrees F between areas of the city, because of physical attributes such as pavement and tree canopy coverage or buildings that block windflow. Data courtesy of Portland State University.

Duncan, 69, had several underlying conditions. His family and friends said he had COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an inflammatory disorder which required him to have one of his lungs drained periodically. He had heart disease and struggled to quit smoking. Despite his health issues, Duncan continued to work as a roofing estimator.

But like about half of those living in the region, Duncan lived without air conditioning. His home was in a hot area, too, right off the freeway – south of the Tacoma Mall. And Duncan lived alone, without any family nearby.

 Terry Duncan, left, died during the June 2021 heat wave.
Courtesy of William Clark
Terry Duncan, left, died during the June 2021 heat wave.

According to Clark, Duncan received a COVID vaccine right before the heat wave hit in June. The vaccine had made Duncan a little sick.

As temperatures reached into the 90s, Clark began searching for an air-conditioned hotel room for his friend. Clark said he booked a Holiday Inn Express in SeaTac for the weekend, starting on Saturday, June 26.

But Duncan refused to accept the offer.

“It just might boil down to the pride, you know, he didn't want me to spend that money. If he was looking, he probably saw what the rooms were costing. And for me, it's like $600 and save a life or, you know, I'll spend the $600,” Clark said in a recent interview.

Left with no other option, Clark began coaching Duncan on what to do at home.

“You get a bucket or a tub and you fill it full of ice, and you put it in front of the fan. And he did. He did. So I kind of chuckled and I said, 'hey, you know, it's better than nothing',” Clark recalled.

But after not hearing from his friend for several days, Clark began to worry. So he went to check in on him.

“I knew the front door had a screen. So when it was really hot, he would leave the front door open. And he had two fans. I walked to the front door, and it was open. And I looked in and he was sitting on the couch. I went in, and I didn't like what I saw. It's not something I'd wish on anyone,” Clark said.

Clark said the fans were still running and that it looked like his friend had died peacefully.

KNKX also spoke to the parents of Jeffrey Rochlin, a 41-year-old man with schizophrenia. Rochlin lived alone in Auburn, a suburb in south King County. Rochlin is one of at least 30 people who died in King County.

King County Heat Deaths

King County Heat Deaths

Hover over the location pins to see who died there in the 3-day heat dome event of June 2021.

Temperature

76.2ºF
96.7ºF
King County commissioned a heat map in July 2020. Evening temperatures on July 27th show differences between areas of as much as 20 degrees F. Generally, everything west of I-405 has more pavement and retains heat longer, especially at night. Data Source: City Of Seattle.

For privacy reasons, Rochlin’s parents asked to remain anonymous for this story. In a recent interview, they told KNKX that they had also tried to get a hotel room for their loved one. Rochlin, however, didn’t seem to realize how dangerous the heat was.

“He didn't listen to the news or anything much. So I don't think he really understood. And we tried to explain to him, on the phone, you know, you have to have a fan. You have to have something,” Rochlin’s mother said.

Rochlin seemed to be able to cope with the heat over the weekend with just a fan and the windows open. But by Monday, Rochlin couldn’t be reached. It was 107 degrees in Auburn that day. So Rochlin’s parents asked the police to perform a welfare check.

“They went by, and they said, ‘Well, he didn't talk much. But he did come to the door, he did answer,’ ” his parents recalled.  

It turns out Rochlin wasn’t OK. Days later, the King County coroner’s office informed Rochlin’s parents that their son had died in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Rochlin had gone to bed on Monday night but never got up.

“I feel, like, just, I mean, extreme sadness and loss, and the anger is just starting now. The anger of what - how did this happen? How can we help prevent someone else from having to experience dying like that?” Rochlin’s mother said.  

Rochlin’s parents don’t really know who to blame. They mentioned the police. The caretaker who visited Jeffrey several times a week. But they also said they didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. His parents said what they are sure about is that additional money is needed for mental health services.

KNKX also spoke to Amy Pawloski, who lost her brother, Michael, 61, during the heat wave. He didn’t have a home and stayed in a shack by a Chevron gas station in Woodinville. He kept all his belongings there, including a DVD player that he used to watch old movies.

“There was nothing I could do. And when the call came that said Woodinville Police, I just knew, I had a feeling I knew what they were going to tell me,” Amy recalled. “It's just, just amazing to find out how many people passed away because of that heat.”

Duncan’s friend, Clark, who is 68, said he’s worried about all the people in his generation who might have health conditions that can become fatal when exacerbated by heat. He said Duncan had been to the doctor to have his lung drained the week that he died.

“Why didn’t the doctor say something to him? Ask him, ‘Do you have a place to go?’, ”Clark asked.

Clark, who is from California, said he moved to the Northwest partly because he loves the normally cool climate.

“I mean, for us up here, we're not used to this heat. And it's not something to take lightly. And I think it was taken lightly.”

HEATED, Part 2: 'This is likely to be a deadly threat': What can we do to survive the next heat wave?

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