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Among the heat wave dead, a man of few words, but a big life

Among the hundreds of people who died from heat-related issues during the Pacific Northwest’s record-breaking heat wave last week, one man was a common face at the Washington state Capitol: Known to most as Moss, he would sit for hours in the marble Rotunda and quietly read before packing up his belongings to head back to the nearby church porch where he slept for five years.

The United Churches of Olympia posted on Facebook June 29 that they discovered Barnett Moss deceased that morning, a day after temperatures had reached 110 degrees. A memorial for him on that same porch Friday drew more than 40 people, many from the Capitol campus.

In the stream of comments on that initial social media post and others that followed, snippets of his life before and after homelessness emerged. He was once a respiratory therapist on the East Coast and had a son. He loved to ride his mountain bike from Philadelphia to New Jersey. He was a voracious reader.

Moss was a man of few words but was quick with a smile for the legislative staffers and others who hurried around the Capitol but took time to share food and books during the legislative session before the COVID-19 pandemic closed the building to the public last year.

“He had a family, a job, hobbies and a home,” said the Rev. Lara Crutsinger-Perry, who said she only learned many details about Moss’ previous life after he died because he was very private about his past.

Crutsinger-Perry said that Moss — who was known to love the outdoors — made his way the Pacific Northwest decades ago, where he initially lived in a tent in woods outside of Bellingham and had his share of challenges. He eventually found his way to the state capital, where he became a friend to those at the church and was welcomed to sleep in a corner just outside the door, his preferred spot, no matter the weather.

Last week’s heat wave was caused by what meteorologists described as a dome of high pressure over the Northwest that scientists said was a once-in-a-millennium event.

Washington's death toll hit at least 78, Oregon reported 116 deaths, and in Canada, British Columbia authorities reported at least 719 “sudden and unexpected deaths” during the heat wave — triple what would normally occur during that amount of time.

Seattle, Portland and many other cities broke all-time heat records, with temperatures in some places reaching above 115 degrees.

Jennifer Molfetta, the administrator at United Churches of Olympia, said Thursday that Moss, 63, was strongly encouraged to go to the cooling stations that had opened in the city and was given bottles of water and told to hydrate. But as he had in the past, he declined offers of help, including an offer to come into the church’s one air-conditioned office.

“He just wanted to do things on his own,” she said. “That’s the tragedy of it. There were so many people who wanted to help.”

A majority of the deaths from the heat wave were in King and Pierce counties, and 19 of the state’s 39 counties have reported heat-related deaths, officials said. But they noted that the numbers are preliminary and may increase as coroner reports are updated.

Thurston County, where Moss died, reported three official heat deaths so far. The Department of Health said they did not have a breakdown of how many deaths occurred among the unsheltered homeless population.

After the memorial, attendees wrote messages on pieces of cloth they tied around the branches of a candied apple crabapple tree that The United Churches of Olympia plans to plant in Moss' honor in the fall.

“To us at the state Capitol visitor services office, Mr. Moss — as we referred to him — was our Capitol Buddha,” Michelle Daniel, an administrative coordinator, said at the memorial. “He lived a quiet, dignified life.”