KLAMATH, Calif. — Leaving his teenage drug abuse behind in Oregon, Dustin Weber was seeking a new beginning along California's rugged far northern coast, happy to be in the land of his mother's heritage, the Yurok Tribe.
Yet before Weber could get a proper start, the 25-year-old was swept out to sea at the mouth of the Klamath River by a tsunami surge generated thousands of miles away by the earthquake off Japan's coast. Rescuers were unable to reach him Friday and called off their efforts; he is presumed dead, though his body has not been found.
His would be the first death of a person on the West Coast by a tsunami since 1964, when 11 people in nearby Crescent City died from the surge created by an earthquake in Alaska.
"His life was always challenged with drug issues and being Indian," said his mother, Lori Davis, of Bend, Ore., after searching miles of beach with family members and friends for her son's body.
"One of the things we fight most is drugs and alcohol. He's been clean and sober for a long time. I just feel like, you know, finally he was so happy. He has never been this happy in a long time," she said. "There have been so many times he was so close to death from other issues in his life. You know, it just doesn't make sense to me."
Dustin was born in Bend, and his parents separated when he was 5. He lived with his father, who works for a grocery chain. His mother remarried, then divorced again.
Blaise Butcher and Shawn Wilcox were friends with Dustin since they were little kids, building forts, fishing, snowboarding, and riding dirt bikes. "He liked music, sports cars, motorcycles, car shows," said Butcher. "He liked everything from hip hop and rap to a little bit of classical music."
Bend was hit hard by the Great Recession. Home to a ski resort, dozens of golf courses, fly fishing in the Deschutes River and spectacular views of the snowcapped Cascade Range, it grew from a little timber town to a four-season resort area when people had money to buy second homes. The wood products mill that once sustained it with blue-collar jobs became a shopping center catering to people with money to burn. When the mortgage money dried up, so did the Bend economy.
But Dustin was a hard worker, and when other people lost their jobs, he kept his on a landscaping crew, said Wilcox.
Over the years, there were car wrecks that should have taken Dustin's life. But he survived them all.
"I think there were three where he just completely cheated death," said Butcher.
After a bad crash in 2008, Dustin started cleaning up his life, attending meetings and staying sober, said Butcher.
Last Christmas, Davis told her son that his grandmother wanted to give him her old house in Klamath, a rural community about 20 miles south of Crescent City. The house is high on the bluff called Requa, with a view of the Pacific and the mouth of the Klamath River.
"I sort of feel it's my fault," she said of her son's death. "I just wish I'd never told him about (the house) in the beginning."
But Dustin was thrilled.
"He was so happy to come down here to start a new life," his mother said. "He got clean and sober. He finished all his community service. Everything he had to do. He had a chance to have his own house. His grandmother – my mother – was going to give him her sister's house. He just beamed when he found out he could have that opportunity. He started working so hard to make that happen."
Two weeks ago, Jon Weber drove his son to Klamath and stayed a few days helping him fix up the house, then returned home.
Dustin posted on Facebook a picture of the view from his new home.
"He was a great kid," the father said. "My son flirted with death a couple times and got around it. This time he didn't see it coming. There was a sneaker wave that came down the shoreline. Some friends of his were down there taking pictures. I think he was expecting the wave to come out of the ocean, but it didn't. It came down the shoreline."
They were on the north side of the river, on a little spit of sand where the Yurok people for thousands of years have used carved wooden hooks to snatch lamprey, a jawless fish that looks like an eel, from the water. A rock formation that looks like a woman with a basket on her back overlooks the site.
The official warnings had said the tsunami would hit around 7:30 a.m., and Dustin thought the danger had passed, not understanding that the surges would get bigger and go on for hours, his mother said. Someone brought a camera to take pictures. Dustin was skipping rocks into the river.
"He was not looking in the direction it was coming from, but they saw it coming," his mother said. "They tried to run down there and save him. One of the guys almost had him by the shirt. They couldn't save him.
"They tried to yell for him, but the ocean was too loud."
On Saturday, Dustin's mother, father, an uncle and friends walked miles of beach looking for his body.
"I'm really sorry we haven't found his body yet," said his mother. "I'm still thinking there may be a chance he's found alive. I know there's no chance of that. But as a mother, I want to hope there still is a chance."