Sculptures pay tribute to victim of train accident

EVERETT — Dylan Svihus knew he found a good friend when Austin Van Leuven not only understood but encouraged him to stack rocks.

For Svihus, 21, it is a form of art and meditation, a way of building patience and finding balance within himself.

After Van Leuven, 18, died in a train accident near Harborview Park on May 28, Svihus set about to honor his pal. For six days, he searched for the right rocks to stack on top of one another. He lugged boulders and scavenged pebbles.

His fleeting sculptures line a memorial that drew scores of Van Leuven’s friends and family Saturday to nearby Howarth Park, a popular stretch of Everett waterfront.

As he toiled along the shore, lugging and lifting, Svihus replayed in his mind conversations he’d had with Van Leuven. The gangly red heads who sometimes were mistaken for one another would hang out in his garage for hours. That’s where they’d talk about philosophy — Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, the universe.

“He was really a deep guy,” Svihus said. “There was a point when I think we discovered enlightenment together. We just started laughing and crying together.”

What impressed Svihus was his friend’s openness, that he could look him and their mutual friends in the eyes and say he loved them.

He remembers Van Leuven would take walks with absolutely no destination in mind. He always figured the joy was in the journey.

His friend constantly was coming up with songs. He could produce beautiful melodies, but also amuse people with ditties he’d play on a pink Hannah Montana acoustic guitar and a Casio keyboard with three missing keys.

His friends called Van Leuven “The Sauce Boss.”

“He was just that little spice of life,” Svihus said. “He was the sauce on top of the chicken Marinara, the ketchup on the french fries. He just made things better.”

Van Leuven’s uncle, Mark Andrews of Montana, remembered a young man who never shied away from giving him big bear hugs.

“He was just a free spirit,” Andrews said. “We would write a lot of poetry. He was just very kind and gentle.”

Andrews appreciated his nephew’s artistic touch and offered him a summer job in Montana working for a family silk screen and embroidery business.

Van Leuven spent much of the day he died doing one of the things he liked best, hanging out along the waterfront with friends. The trio had been out on a point west of the park. When the tide came in faster than they had expected that evening, they climbed up to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. The tracks provide an inviting — yet dangerous — path along the water.

“They were next to the track, just to the side of the track,” Everett police officer Aaron Snell said.

As they walked back around 7:45 p.m., an Amtrak train rounded a bend and caught them by surprise. Van Leuven was stranded on a narrow shoulder close to the water.

“They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Andrews said. “There were two tracks and they didn’t know which one it was on.”

Van Leuven was clipped by the train and knocked toward the water. His head struck the rock seawall. His body was recovered that night by a police dive team, firefighters and personnel from Naval Station Everett.

Friends created a memorial at Howarth Park by turning a large horseshoe-shaped piece of driftwood into a giant dream-catcher. Svihus’s rock cairns, some seeming to defy the tug of gravity, lined the tribute on both sides.

Svihus and others continue to come to grips with the loss of a thoughtful friend.

“He lived to make people happy,” he said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com

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