As Boeing shuts down, an employee’s family is left to grieve

To his family, Elton Washington is much more than a statistic in the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

Elton Washington (right) with his sister-in-law Renee Allen. (Family photo)

Elton Washington (right) with his sister-in-law Renee Allen. (Family photo)

EVERETT — Elton Washington was like a lot of people.

He loved his family and going on vacations with them, to Miami or Jamaica. He made bad jokes somehow funny, and teased those around him in a way that didn’t make them mad. He never missed a Marvel movie. He sang, but wasn’t a very good singer. He danced. He played sports. His son said he could’ve been a football star. Apparently he was a pretty good boxer in his youth, and in recent years he could still be seen hitting a punching bag at his Renton home.

For 27 years, Washington worked for Boeing, most recently as a flight-line inspector at the Everett factory. He was a union steward for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 751.

On Sunday, he died after contracting the new coronavirus. He left behind two children — a 16-year-old son and a 37-year-old daughter — and three grandchildren. He was 57.

He’s among 2,469 people in the state who have tested positive for COVID-19, including 123 people who have died because of the virus, the Department of Health reported Tuesday. In Snohomish County, the outbreak has infected 614 people and killed 16 — not including Elton Washington — according to the Snohomish Health District.

Washington’s death became a tipping point at Boeing’s Everett plant at Paine Field, where 35,000 people work, and which by Sunday had seen 17 confirmed cases. For weeks, workers’ frustrations have been mounting over what they described as the company’s inadequate response to the outbreak. Employees who wished to remain anonymous told The Daily Herald about a lack of cleaning supplies, as well as overwhelmed and overworked cleaning crews. They talked of working in close quarters, not knowing if or when they would contract the disease that had quickly spread worldwide. And they questioned whether workers were being informed about potential contact with positive cases.

Over the weekend, Washington’s brother pleaded on Facebook for Boeing to shut down the Everett factory.

“Please close your doors and shut down please,” he wrote. “My brother Elton Washington … is on life-support.”

On Monday, Boeing did just that, announcing it would suspend operations for two weeks.

To his family, Washington isn’t just a statistic. He’s a person, whose laugh they miss, and who they weren’t able to see in his final moments.

Washington’s infection came as a surprise, as it has for many people who contracted the virus. He was careful. He had high blood pressure and was diabetic, so when he first learned of the outbreak happening in his state, he took work off. Family said he got sick after he decided to come back to work for a day.

The symptoms seemed harmless at first. Washington had been sick for a week or so, with what he thought were allergies or a cold. He went to the doctor, got medicine and went on his way.

As days went by, he grew more ill, family said. Last week, Washington went to the emergency room at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle with pneumonia. By March 14, he was sedated, with a tube in his airway to help him breathe.

Renee Allen was on vacation in Aruba when she found out her brother-in-law was sick. On Saturday, shortly after she and her husband Anthony Allen came back, they learned Washington wasn’t going to make it.

The next day they went to tell Washington’s teenage son, E.J., who had been quarantined. They delivered the news while standing outside the house, more than the recommended 6 feet away.

“It was some of the hardest stuff you had to do,” Anthony Allen said. “Watch this boy break down. You can’t hold him and can’t touch him.”

Hours later, Washington died. Family couldn’t be there with him, as visitors were not allowed, out of fear the virus could spread at the hospital. His niece Katherine Allen said she was thankful for the health care staff.

“He wasn’t alone,” she said. “A nurse was holding his hand and talking to him, and saying things we wished we could’ve said.”

Now, the family is left wondering how to grieve. A stay-at-home order enacted by Gov. Jay Inslee means they can’t hold a memorial service for the indefinite future. It could be months before they can host an event to honor Washington’s memory.

“We as family will have to grieve all over again,” Renee Allen said. “Hopefully we’ll be in a better place … but that’s going to be hard.”

Renee and Anthony Allen said they expect to look after E.J. once he is out of quarantine. His mother died from cancer years ago.

E.J. chose not to speak with a Herald reporter, but he shared a written statement.

“My dad loved his family and friends but he really loved my mom,” he wrote. “That was his best friend and I know that he’s back with her and they’re both watching me.”

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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