TOPPENISH — Family and friends of Rachel Norris agree she is an independent woman. They say she doesn’t appreciate drama. She speaks her mind. She can handle what life throws at her.
They know all this about Norris. But hours after she lost everything when her apartment in Wapato burned early Nov. 14, Norris disappeared. She hasn’t been seen since that afternoon, and relatives cannot confirm rumors about where she might be. They fear for her safety and worry she may be struggling with overwhelming emotions.
On Wednesday, they gathered at the Yakama Nation Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility to make a public plea for any information on the Yakama woman’s whereabouts. Most of all, they hope Norris, 38, will come forward and let them know she is OK.
“I’m asking for a divine intervention on finding Rachel and letting family members and friends know that she is safe and alive,” said her aunt, Kathryn Schwartz, in reading from a statement after a short prayer.
“I know that the fire was very scary and for whatever reason ... it’s not your fault. Accidents happen. I just don’t want you to be afraid. I don’t want you to feel alone,” Schwartz said. “I love you so very much, and all your besties from work care so much for your well-being as well.”
Schwartz and her nephew traveled from The Dalles, Ore., that morning in deteriorating weather for the gathering in a conference room. A few of Norris’ friends and co-workers from nearby Legends Casino joined them, along with advocates for missing and murdered indigenous women and their loved ones.
“I just want to thank everyone for coming. It really means a lot to me,” Schwartz said in speaking on behalf of her family. Norris’ mother is facing health issues, she noted.
Norris had lived in the three-apartment building on Third Street for a few years after saving up for it while living with others. The fire began early, when residents were sleeping. Though no one was injured, the blaze was intense — and devastating.
“There were others that had lost out as well. My deepest prayers go out to those families,” Schwartz said.
A few hours later, Norris went to a relative’s house, clearly upset after barely getting out of her apartment in time, Schwartz said. Norris then headed to Goldendale to see her younger sister, who messaged Schwartz about the fire. Schwartz called Norris and talked to her that morning, already worried because of an earlier conversation.
“I had spoken with (Norris) a few days prior. She had asked me to pray for her,” said Schwartz, a woman of strong faith. “I really miss her a lot. It’s just been very hard. ... This is so unlike her.”
Many know Norris through her various roles at Legends Casino, and those who are close to her describe her as a devoted employee. She takes time off to gather traditional foods such as huckleberries and work at the Central Washington State Fair every year, her aunt said.
Norris had called her boss the morning of the fire, and her boss told her to take the rest of the week off. But Norris didn’t return to work the next week, and her boss called every day but couldn’t get hold of her, Schwartz said.
No one has seen Norris since the afternoon of the fire, she said.
“I love you, Rachel, and I just want you to please reach out to someone. Reach out to God; he’ll guide you in the right direction,” Schwartz said in her statement. “Everyone loves you very much. Everyone!”
Schwartz and tribal police have spoken with Norris’ boyfriend. The couple were arguing the night before the fire, Schwartz said, and Norris asked him to leave, which he did.
Though they became emotional in talking about Norris because they are so worried about her, friends and family smiled and laughed as they shared stories about her and described her mannerisms. Norris has a slim build and works out often at the Yakama Nation Diabetes Program gym. She eats healthy, for the most part, but also loves hamburgers.
“Rachel is very independent; she works so hard for everything she’s gotten,” Schwartz said. “She loves to laugh and has the most amazing sense of humor and a very gentle and loving personality, once you get to know her.”
Samantha Miller, a co-worker who became a close friend, said Norris was the only person loud enough to get her baby to move when she was pregnant. She later found out she is related to Norris.
“We just want to find her. We just really miss her,” Miller said. “We just want her home and safe.”