KENAI, Alaska — A few months ago, a major event changed Natasha Huestis’ life. On March 22, a mudslide near Oso claimed the lives of her daughter and mother.
Nearly 1,500 miles away, Steve Attleson, owner of ATEC Marine in Kenai, Alaska, recently completed a 56-foot boat. During most of the year it took to construct the vessel, Attleson planned to name the boat after his mom, and, at first, Attleson said, she was excited about the idea.
But Gemey Glover, who lives in Marysville, called her son and suggested that instead he do something to honor the searchers and victims of the mudslide. “And I thought, ‘Ya know, that is a better idea,’” he said.
He asked Huestis how she felt about him naming the boat after her daughter, Sanoah, who was 4 months old when she died in the landslide with her grandmother, Christina Jefferds, 45.
“I was all in,” Huestis said when Attleson suggested the idea.
On Sunday in Homer, where the boat was transported earlier this month, Huestis took part in a christening ceremony. She arrived in Alaska on Thursday and met Attleson, who showed her some sights.
Attleson also christened a 32-foot vessel the company built, which as a surprise, he named after his mom, who also flew up from Washington.
Huestis said her stepdad, Seth Jefferds, would have liked to make the trip, but is busy with work.
“That was one of his things, he always wanted to go to Alaska with my mom,” she said.
The 56-foot landing craft is the biggest ATEC has built. The 1,200-horsepower boat can run in excess of 20 knots with 20,000 pounds onboard. Other vessels of similar size run 8 or 9 knots, Attleson said.
“And it’s just a cool boat — big, fast and strong,” he said.
The boat is available for hire for general freight hauling. Attleson said it fits a niche in the local industry because of its size and speed. Homer has many boats that are smaller and bigger; Attleson’s vessel fills the gap between the two sizes.
“Hopefully by naming the boat after Sanoah that will somewhat honor the victims there and the efforts of the search and rescue people that participated in that,” he said.
The morning of the mudslide, Huestis, 26 and a single parent, went to a yoga class and her step-dad left the house as well. Her mom stayed home to babysit Sanoah.
Seth Jefferds is part of the volunteer fire department in Oso. The department called him about the mudslide, which happened shortly after 10:30 a.m. He was one of the first responders on the scene, Huestis said.
Close to noon, another firefighter called Huestis on Seth Jefferds’ phone and told her to get to the fire station. He said there had been a mudslide.
“I didn’t understand,” she said.
Huestis tried calling the house phone and her mom’s cellphone. Both phones didn’t ring through.
She arrived at the fire station where Seth Jefferds was.
“When I saw my step-dad he just grabbed me and hugged me and he said that everything’s gone,” she said.
From the fire station, they went to the local hospital and saw their neighbors, who had survived the mudslide.
Crews on scene wouldn’t let people in the area, she said, because they were afraid of the hill sliding again.
In the afternoon on March 23, Huestis and a friend sneaked into the area.
“It had just been 24 hours,” she said. “It was really cold in March, and I figured that, if anything, my mom could have been holding onto my daughter at least 24 hours. She could have made it. At least that.”
That night, crews recovered Christina Jefferds’ body. Four days later, Sanoah’s body was found.
“It felt almost impossible because if my mom was right here, my daughter couldn’t have been that far away,” she said.
Sanoah often slept in Huestis’ bed with her and trying to adjust to the drastic, sudden change in her life during the past few months has been horrible, Huestis said.
“I wake up in the middle of the night still because I’m like, ‘Where is (Sanoah)?’” Huestis said.
Not having her mom, that person who she could always rely on, around anymore is a struggle as well, she said.
“They’re willing to put everything, absolutely everything, on hold for you, and I think I miss that feeling the most,” she said.
Recently, Huestis woke up one morning and saw a picture of Sanoah and didn’t feel like she knew her.
“It just feels like I just lived this second life,” she said.
The pain is so great that at least once a week, Huestis falls to the ground on her knees.
“It’s a horrible feeling and the best that I can do is take these opportunities that have been given to me,” she said.
Along with having a boat named after her daughter, Huestis was granted the opportunity to attend the University of Washington and Washington State University for a year for free. Her long-term goal is to become a pediatric neurosurgeon.
“That is in a big part just because of how they found Sanoah,” she said. “When you go to work you always need something keeping you motivated. … So this is something that will always be with me and always keep me going in a positive direction, and I feel like I could help so many people.”
Both Huestis’ mom and daughter were cremated. The family isn’t sure what they want to do with Christina Jefferds’ remains. But Huestis has started spreading Sanoah’s ashes on mountaintops in Washington. So far she has made it to Disappointment Cleaver on Mount Rainier and Mount Pilchuck. She plans to scatter some ashes on Mount Baker, Whitehorse Mountain and at the summit of Rainier. In October for Sanoah’s birthday, Huestis plans to fly to Hawaii where Sanoah’s father lives, and spread ashes at the top of Mount Haleakala on Maui.
“I love it because I stay in Marysville pretty often and Mount Pilchuck just shines thorough Marysville,” she said. “And so it’s cool to wake up in the morning and look up at Mount Pilchuck and just say good morning.”