The Rising

Steve Skaglund walks across the rubble on the east side of the Oso mudslide on March 23, the day after it hit. (Genna Martin / The Herald)

When the hillside fell, the people of the Stillaguamish Valley never wavered

Published: Friday, May 30, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

The month had been ridiculously wet. A real frog-choker, as they say around the Oso fire hall. By March 22, the sky already had dumped 17 inches on Circle B Ranch where Willy Harper works keeping things running.

For a few days, folks about town saw water spewing from the bulkhead holding back Skaglund Hill, a place notorious for mudslides across Highway 530.

Harper, 37, Oso's volunteer fire chief, got the call around 10:45 a.m. Mud had blanketed a stretch of the rural highway. It came as no surprise on a slow, soggy Saturday in the quiet river valley.

Harper has lived in Oso1 for 30 years. He's seen plenty of little slides, so he threw a few orange traffic cones into his Suburban, drove past the empty fire hall and headed four miles east.

Up the valley, in Darrington, phones started ringing.

People who had left town earlier that morning called their friends: Can you check on my house? My dog? My drive home?

Shovels were loaded into pickup trucks before they rolled west.2 They figured there'd be some digging.

In the valley, those out on their morning strolls sensed something was off.

The North Fork Stillaguamish River shrank to a trickle. Fish flopped in puddles. Sirens wailed from east and west as emergency vehicles converged toward a riverside neighborhood aptly named Steelhead Haven.

Jeff Anderson and Coby Young search the Kuntz family's home the day after the mudslide. The family was away when it hit.
Jeff Anderson and Coby Young search the Kuntz family's home the day after the mudslide. The family was away when it hit. (Genna Martin / The Herald)

On the Oso side, a run-down house with a blue tarp on its roof squatted in the middle of the highway.3 The valley's north side was carved into a series of giant earth steps. What lay beyond was obscured by a stand of alder, but way out in the distance, a new range of gray hills slumped over the valley. The few trees that still stood there canted in crazy directions, as though a rug had been ripped from beneath their roots.

From the Darrington side, the light was all wrong. Where old trees once touched over the highway to make a tunnel of shadow, there was now just open sky. Eyes were drawn to a raw scar on the hillside to the northwest.

At 10:37 a.m., a hill that had stood since the Ice Age awoke from an eon's slumber with a terrifying roar. A churning wave of mud, trees and clay tumbling in its face raced a mile across the valley.

Steelhead Haven was gone.

Instead, there were pinnacles of mud the size of fire trucks, and loaves of sand and silt three stories high.

Those first to lay eyes on the worst disaster in Snohomish County history couldn't comprehend what they were seeing. Fate — perhaps a red light in town or a cup of coffee for the road — had spared them.

Screams for help shook them from their stupor.

They knew what they had to do.

Nothing — not hip-deep mud, not quicksand, not risky footing, not leaking propane and gas, not downed power lines, not orders to stay out — would hold them back.

When the mountain fell, the people rose up.

The blue-tarped roof of a house destroyed in the March 22 mudslide is visible amid the destruction.
The blue-tarped roof of a house destroyed in the March 22 mudslide is visible amid the destruction. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Into the mud

Any other time, Isaac Hall and Quinn Nations would have been easy pickings for a traffic ticket.

Hall, 26, and Nations, 33, each gripped a steering wheel.

Hall, a heavy equipment mechanic, was in front in his 1979 Ford F600 farm truck. Nations followed in the same model, one year older, connected by a tow bar. It had deflated tires, a dead engine and no brakes or brake lights. The faded blue rust bucket did have enough good parts for Hall to enlist his old logging buddy's help in lugging the heap across the valley.

Trooper Rocky Oliphant, his cruiser's lights flashing and siren screaming, whizzed past the startled pair on Highway 530.

A knot of idled cars forced the Darrington men to pull over. They hoofed it over the hill to check out the ruckus. The highway was buried, and familiar faces were surveying a mud-coated tangle of ravaged homes.

Fellow logger Sean Wright, 26, was there. He'd gone into town to get a prescription filled and was still pale from several days of the flu. He had his blood up.

He and others could see that something terrible had happened. They wanted to help look for survivors but were being ordered to stay out.

Three other men were already defying the law.

Kody Wesson, 23, was a good 50 feet into the morass. Right behind him was his brother-in-law, Chris Ditgen. The pair had driven into town that morning to be fitted for wedding tuxedos. A second stop to buy guitar strings likely saved their lives.

Ahead of them, in the mud, was Kris Langton.4 The 31-year-old carpenter and Sunday school teacher with long frizzy hair often wore kilts, but somehow fit in just fine in secluded Darrington.

Langton told Oliphant that he'd have to shoot him to keep him out. His wife and four children were in a house on the far side of the slide.

He kept going. About a hundred yards in, Langton found a mother and baby wrapped in the branches of a tree. Wesson relayed the news to those standing beyond the slide.

Growing impatient, Hall, Nations and Wright waded into the mud. The trooper, concerned for their safety on the unstable ground, among downed power lines, threatened to arrest them, but he wasn't able to stop them.

Fire chief Harper radioed for help. When he heard that a mother and baby were in the mud, he headed in.

Each step the men took was fraught with uncertainty, often ending belt high in muddy batter that sapped energy, swallowed shoes and threatened to suck them under.

Amanda Skorjanc was found with broken bones; her young son, Duke Suddarth, was barely breathing. At right is Skorjanc's partner, Ty Suddarth. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Amanda Skorjanc5, 25, was pinned within pieces of a couch, unable to wriggle out from beneath a bushy evergreen with thick, low-hanging branches. She'd been carried 700 feet from where her house once stood. All the while, she clutched her son, Duke Suddarth, praying for God to spare them.

When Wesson arrived, he told her he, too, had a baby boy.

“I will make sure he is safe,” promised Wesson, a choker setter whose job keeps him running up and down hills wrapping heavy cables around logs. He started back, gently cradling Duke, keeping him warm, trying not to step into a sinkhole.

Time grew short. Duke's tiny limp body, just five months from the womb, had turned blue. His breaths drew shallow.

Wesson rubbed Duke's legs and picked his way to safety as fast as he could. When he got stuck, he'd hand Duke over to one of the men who followed, taking the baby back when he freed himself.

Duke stopped breathing.

On solid ground, Wesson gave Duke to Steve Jahn Jr., one of Oso's dozen volunteer firefighters. Jahn, 29, had earned his Emergency Medical Technician credentials a few months earlier.

He began chest compressions. Duke let out a cry.

The men's eyes met: One precious life had been saved.

There was no time to savor the moment. Duke's mother — her broken bones obvious — needed immediate help.

It was anyone's guess how many others might still be out there.

Volunteers Frank and Rhonda Cook watch as a body they recovered is lifted into a helicopter the day after the mudslide.
Volunteers Frank and Rhonda Cook watch as a body they recovered is lifted into a helicopter the day after the mudslide. (Genna Martin / The Herald)

A scramble in the rubble

When Frank and Rhonda Cook saw Rockport medics rolling by, they knew something was wrong along Highway 530.

The Darrington couple, who'd volunteered with the town's fire department and Snohomish County Search and Rescue, understood the significance of seeing their Skagit County neighbors zipping through town.

Rhonda told her boss at the bakery: “I need to go.”

She hasn't been back to that job yet.

When they reached the slide's eastern edge, on the Darrington side, the Cooks could see a scramble of locals and firefighters amid the rubble.

Among them were Marc and Julie Ford, who'd gone to check on their friends' dog and ended up helping Gary “Mac” McPherson. The retired scientist was buried in mud, trapped beneath a collapsed roof.

Darrington firefighters and family friends dug him out while power lines swayed nearby and the river began to rise.

Julie Ford held McPherson's hand, trying to comfort him as he cried for his wife.

Linda McPherson6, the town's beloved retired librarian, was dead. Neighbors Don and Elaine Young pulled blankets from their own bed to cover her.

Cook started getting texts from Rae Smith, whose daughter Summer Raffo7 was missing. Summer was driving on the highway to a job — she shoed horses — when the hill fell. She never showed up.

As the hours passed with no word, Summer's mom urged Cook to do everything she could.

“Please help bring her home, Rhonda,” she wrote. “I'm dying.”

A search and rescue worker is lowered into the trees to retrieve a body east of the mudslide. (Genna Martin / The Herald)

Help from the air

Snohomish County's Helicopter Rescue Team8 gathered for a 10 a.m. training flight at Taylor's Landing, near Snohomish. First, though, everybody would practice a rescue hoist, as always.

Ernie Zeller wasn't on the schedule, but a spot had opened up.

Six men and one woman were aboard SnoHawk10. The engine hadn't warmed up, but the team was running through the pilot's checklist.

Deputy Glen Bergstrom brought news.

There was a mudslide. People were on top of their houses, screaming. “That's all I heard,” said Zeller, 45.

The trainees hopped out. The flight to Oso took 20 minutes.

First, they rescued Robin Youngblood and Jetty Dooper, who were standing on a roof.

Next, they headed toward Skorjanc, trapped from her knees down in a pocket of branches, two-by-fours, couch and ceiling into which she'd been thrust. Her broken bones hung at odd angles.

A half dozen rescuers encircled her as Zeller was lowered to the ground. Nations worked with a borrowed chainsaw to cut her out.

A boy in the debris

Across the mud, mechanic Hall and Wright, fighting the flu, used plywood, siding and whatever else they could grab to build a bridge. They headed east, atop pieces of tin roof, toward a man waving a stick about a quarter-mile away.

Hall was first.

Rounding a heap of debris, he didn't expect to find a young boy just standing there.

Jacob Spillers, 4, was shivering next to a tower of clay the size of a small house. He cried for his mom. Hall, tired and shoeless, pushed through the mud to reach the boy.

“I told him that he was all right and I'd do everything to help him,” Hall said.

He has a son the same age.

He wrapped his arms around the boy.

He told him he loved him.

Sean Wright (left), Isaac Hall (center) and Ken Wesson went into the mud during the rescue and recovery efforts. (Genna Martin / The Herald)

A place for waiting

They couldn’t stay home.

They didn’t know where to go.

So they went to the hospital.

Hospitals have answers, right? A doctor’s confidence. A nurse’s compassion.

People filled the waiting room at Cascade Valley on March 22.

Their eyes reflected the fear, the chaos, the unknown.

Staff shared coffee. Warm cookies. Phone chargers. Hugs.

Five patients came in, covered in mud. Bones were broken, skin punctured, spouses and children missing.

Nurse Barbara Hinshaw ran the emergency room. She was checking with other hospitals, asking after her patients’ loved ones: hair color, eye color. But the mud was indiscriminate. It coated everything, even people, in that same brownish-gray.

Hospital staff waited and hoped for more patients.

More patients meant more survivors.

The hours passed.

Even seasoned professionals turned to their parents that night for comfort. Sharing what they heard, what they saw.

Hospital workers found family, schoolmates, neighbors among the lists of the missing and the dead.

Arlington’s not so big.

Surgeon Paul Naumann stayed until the sun went down, and the emergency radio quieted.

Hope had already begun to fade.

— Rikki King

Wright caught up. The boy was standing on his own two feet. Pretty tough kid, he thought. Now just to get him out.

They waved SnoHawk10 over. It dropped down, hovering next to a clay spire. Crew chief Randy Fay stepped onto the skid, then into the mud. He threw a rope to Hall to use to haul himself and the boy up to Fay.

The rotor wash pressed down. Hall struggled. Wright pushed his friend from behind, and together they reached help. Fay pulled Jacob into his arms, passed him into the helicopter, then signaled for Hall to climb inside.

They were evacuating the debris field. Hall and Jacob were carried off into the sky.

After dropping them off on the Oso side, SnoHawk10 headed back to Skorjanc. By then, she'd been cut free.

She was pulled into the air on a litter. Amid the commotion, firefighters relayed to Zeller that the baby had survived. The helicopter landed on the road, and crews moved Skorjanc into a waiting ambulance. Zeller told her that Duke was OK.

Only after Skorjanc was flying to safety did Nations make his way back toward Highway 530.

A few feet from the edge, the mud swallowed his remaining shoe. Then he stepped on a nail.

Trooper Oliphant was waiting for him. Instead of reaching for his cuffs, the patrolman shook his hand.

On the ground, little Jacob gravitated toward the stranger who had come for him, settling into Hall's muddy lap until an ambulance took the boy to Cascade Valley.

In the emergency room, medical assistant Lorraine Nations, 55, didn't know her son Quinn and his friends were among the rescuers.

When Jacob arrived, she cleaned him up, got him dressed and told him to call her “Oma,” German for grandmother. She set him on her lap and read him a book. That's how Jonielle Spillers, Jacob's mother, found them later that day.

Back in the mire, Wright soldiered on. After helping rescue Jacob, he dragged himself to where he could take cover from the hammering of the rotor blades.

He laid in the mud, exhausted, thinking about the man still off in the distance, still waving the two-by-four.

Wright pressed on. The man needed help extracting another victim. Together, they flagged down a helicopter and loaded the severely injured young man into a helicopter basket. Later, Wright learned that Adam Farnes, 23, didn't make it.

The helicopter flew Wright and the other man to a dry patch of land on the Darrington side. A sliver of guilt nagged at him.

“It just felt like I needed to run back out there,” he said.

Map of Stillguamish Valley
Kris Langton feeds his son Kristian. Langton worked for hours digging in the mud alongside Navy rescuer Brent McIntyre. (Sofia Jaramillo / The Herald)

An immense disaster

News spread. Hundreds were mobilizing to a disaster that already was being compared to the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980.9

Dozens of agencies drove to Oso and Darrington. An MH-60S Knighthawk search and rescue helicopter arrived from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Unlike Jacob's, few rescues were straightforward. To free one survivor, crews cut through more than a dozen feet of debris, including a roof, two mattresses and a box spring. Then they had to move a sink.

Debris shifted dangerously around them the whole time. A refrigerator was all that held up a wall. Logs snapped up as they were cut.

Hospital corpsman second class Brent McIntyre, 31, was the first Navy rescuer dropped into the mud.

He remembers trying to describe the scene on his radio. Two houses were smashed under one roof, along with a car and a boat. The mud was soupy, like thin oatmeal. They would step on drywall, and it would crumble. They leaped from debris pile to debris pile to avoid sinking.

The crew flew the first man they rescued to Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon, then returned to the base for fuel, tools and help.

That same morning, the Navy Region Northwest fire and Emergency Services crew happened to be on base, drilling, crawling through a smoky building.

It was the first time the Navy helicopter team brought civilian firefighters along on a mission.

They flew back to Oso. The first job they had was to find a crew member who'd stayed behind. The man had climbed a tree so they could see him.

Firefighter Ian Walton's dad was a logger. He gave the others advice on cutting through the downed trees mixed in the debris. There were firs, hemlocks, cedars, alder. “Take a forest and just lay it on its side,” he said.

Many of those rescued had hypothermia.

“They were hurt. They knew they were hurt,” McIntyre said.

The crew covered them in wool blankets, T-shirts and fleece, whatever they had in the helicopter.

The last few survivors were wrapped in bedsheets the crews brought from the base. The rescuers wrote their vital signs in marker on the fabric.

One man's vital signs were scrawled on his chest.

In the debris field, McIntyre met Langton, the kilt-wearing Sunday school teacher, and together they worked for hours.10

“I mean hands-on helping us dig,” McIntyre said. “That guy, I cannot thank him enough for his help.”

On SnoHawk10, Zeller remembers grabbing the hand of another survivor, Larry Gullikson, 81. He yelled for Gullikson to squeeze his finger.

It's something he learned working rescues — using touch to make sure someone is OK.

Gullikson squeezed. He squeezed until they landed.

By 2 p.m., helicopter crews had pulled 14 people from the mud. Thirteen survived.

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    Early morning light catches the mudslide site May 16. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

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    A searcher stands March 27 at the scene of the mudslide. (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)

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    Neighbors gather at the Oso Fire Department to look for updates on March 22, the day of the slide. (Annie Mulligan / For The Herald)

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    A firefighter searches a portion of the rubble at the Oso mudslide site March 27.
    (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)

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    Volunteers embrace outside of the Oso Fire Department after observing a moment of silence at 10:37 a.m. March 29, exactly one week after the mudslide.
    (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)

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    Ava Yeckley and Darby Morgan, both of Arlington, put up a sign reading "We heart Oso" along Highway 530 on April 1. (Sofia Jaramillo / The Herald)

Photos: Loss and courage

See more lasting images from the Oso mudslide and the community's response in the days that followed in our photo gallery.

An unfamiliar landscape

Rhonda Cook struggled through the slop and downed trees to reach a home with a wall busted open and eaves nearly touching the ground.

Cook grabbed the roof and levered herself through the opening, expecting to stand up inside. Instead, her boots punched through a crust of mud. Below the mud, the room was filled with water. She dangled half-submerged, unable to pull herself up without her husband's help.

Everywhere, the mud was wet and cold. Anyone in its frigid grasp would be fighting hypothermia, their body heat draining like the charge from a battery. They needed to be found, fast.

But where to start?

It looked like everything was gone but a few spruce.

Mount Higgins was still where it belonged. So north was that direction, she reasoned.

Little else made sense. There was a huge gash on the hillside above Steelhead Haven, a mile distant. Could it have sent mud this far?

Firefighters struggled with the same question. On both the Darrington and Oso sides, they could hear shouts for help. They radioed back and forth. It took awhile to realize they weren't hearing the same people, that the slide had separated them too far for screams to carry.11

Cellphone service, always iffy in the valley, was working in spots on the Darrington side. Facebook feeds filled up with images from Oso. Word filtered in from the helicopter pilots. The river was blocked. Water was backing up.

By mid-afternoon, the would-be rescuers were being ordered out.

Over by the McPhersons' place, Marc Ford could hear gunshots.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

Pause.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

Anyone who knew the woods got the message. A distress signal.

Terry Haldeman, a Snohomish County sheriff's detective, set up the first command post to coordinate search efforts.
Terry Haldeman, a Snohomish County sheriff's detective, set up the first command post to coordinate search efforts. (Genna Martin / The Herald)

Ford spotted Terry Haldeman12, a Snohomish County sheriff's detective who lives outside Darrington. The lawman had set up the disaster's first command post — his pickup truck — at the edge of the destruction. Haldeman was juggling radios and his cellphone, calling in what he knew and ordering reinforcements.

Ford needed to speak with this guy. He stood in front of him, waiting for an opening.

Finally, the detective looked his way.

Ford told him about the gunshots. He was convinced people were still out in the mud. He wanted to help, but firefighters who'd shown up had told him it was too dangerous. He wasn't going to turn his back on people in need.

Haldeman nodded. Do what you can, he told him. Be careful. Don't make us come rescue you. And, he said, if anyone told Ford to clear out, just send them his way.

At one point, a crew member was lowered to the ground from SnoHawk10 and left alone in the mud. He listened, and heard no cries for help.13

As twilight approached, volunteer firefighters on the Oso side focused on helping people reach higher ground. If the river gnawed through the debris all at once, a flash flood could race down the valley toward Arlington.

Folks went door-to-door, spreading the word. Neighbors helped neighbors. Sheep were pushed into the backseats of cars. People who'd never driven a tractor hopped behind the wheel and eased out the clutch.

Evacuation warnings scrolled across TV screens.

Few people slept that night.

Jason Anderson, Steve Skaglund, Rhonda Cook and Frank Cook recover a body from the wreckage March 23.
Jason Anderson, Steve Skaglund, Rhonda Cook and Frank Cook recover a body from the wreckage March 23. (Genna Martin / The Herald)

A place to help

A small country fire station. A bright red pumper.

A young chief’s face.

A place to go that felt safe.

People just showed up at the Oso Fire Station, four miles west of the slide, a last stop before the roadblock.

The station became a nerve center for planning, a hub for volunteers eager to help.

Some brought homemade cookies and casseroles. Others brought flowers. One woman brought a little dog, to make others smile.

About a dozen firefighters donate their time here.

It’s still a fire hall: bunker gear ready to go. Trucks and hoses. Emergency radio traffic crackles from speakers.

Posters and banners made by kids cover the walls. Handprints in paint. Hearts. We love you. We support you.

On the same walls, photos and maps of the slide.

Homes used to be here, here and here.

Rescuers needed to dig. Their own were among the dead.

— Rikki King

Digging on their own

Sunday dawned bright and clear.

Nations headed out early. “I thought there would be 500 boots on the ground,” he said.

Instead, the debris field was empty of searchers.

The Cooks were out the door before the sun was up. Neither slept.

Rhonda Cook worried about her friend, Summer Raffo, who everyone feared was buried in her car.

Their friendship had been born during a blizzard. Cook needed help with a colicky horse. As the snow piled up, all the vets said they couldn't come. Rae Smith, Summer's mom, knew horses. She agreed to help, so long as Cook did the driving.

The horse lived and the women's friendship blossomed. Cook found kindred spirits in Summer and her mom. They not only loved their animals, they lived to help others. If something needed fixing, they didn't wait for permission.

The Cooks rolled up to the slide that Sunday expecting to pitch in on a full-scale rescue operation.

Where was the command post? Why weren't any searchers out in the mud? What was the plan?

No one was there to answer their questions.

They got angry, and busy. They drove up the old access road that ran under the power lines along the south side of the valley. Somebody already had cut the lock on the gate that blocked the road.

When they reached an overlook on the southern rim, they saw, for the first time, the enormity of the damage.

The disaster had two faces. On the Oso side, there were piles of dirt and debris. Near Darrington, there was a flood of mud, and the river was rising.

Folks were stirring below, none of them part of any official response. They poked around the edges of the slide, riding their quads overland to skirt roadblocks.

They could see Don and Elaine Young packing their belongings to save what they could from the advancing flood. The Cooks went down to help.

Elaine didn't know what to pack. Rhonda told her: birth certificates, paperwork, clothes.

The Youngs' neighbors, the Kuntz family, had been at a high school baseball game when the mud hit. Their house was gone. Before the slide, Coby Young, 20, was working on 15-year-old Quinton Kuntz's motorcycle. He put the bike in a boat and tied it off the garage so it would float, so at least the flood wouldn't get his friend's motorcycle.

The Cooks, meanwhile, returned to the mud. They came across a 40-foot pile of debris. Perched on top was a pickup truck. They knew it wasn't Summer, who didn't drive a truck. They clambered up. Nobody was inside.

On the way down, Rhonda Cook spotted what she took to be a piece of plastic. She wiped the mud away. It was part of another truck.

They began to dig, unearthing a Chevrolet Suburban, crushed to the size of a Smart car. The cabin was packed with mud. Nobody was inside.

Summer, Rhonda thought. Where was Summer? She'd promised to find her.

The Cooks found bodies. They did what they could, marking the locations before moving on.

As the afternoon passed, they joined a large group helping the Kuntz family trying to salvage possessions from their home, which was in pieces 100 yards from the foundation.

A whimper came from somewhere inside.

Everyone began working to reach that sound. They cut through walls, doors, carpet.

Buddy, the family's chocolate Labrador, crawled out, shaken and scared.

“If we are finding a dog in the debris, why not humans?” Rhonda wondered.

Where is Summer?

Natasha Huestis (center) clears debris March 24 at the site of a destroyed house.
Natasha Huestis (center) clears debris March 24 at the site of a destroyed house. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

A place to pause

Flowers, like funerals, mark beginnings and endings.

Celebration and sorrow.

The five-foot chicken-wire cross held daisies and tulips.

People could kneel there. They could cry. They could pray.

They could lay carnations and roses at its foot.

It was somewhere to go, to do something, anything.

Tina Ray, the pastor’s wife, pulled the cross from storage. She set it up on the lawn of Oso Community Chapel, facing Highway 530. The church has stood more than 100 years.

People were drawn there. They could pause to weave a flower into the wire cross and become part of it all.

— Rikki King

Grim determination

Another day was gone.

Officially, it was still a rescue operation. But in their hearts, people who'd been at the slide, on the ground or in the air, knew otherwise.

Nations was fuming.

This is a town of doers — and not nearly enough was being done. It was Monday, and he and others were sick of hearing about “protocol.”

They had heard the screams on Saturday. It had been silent on Sunday, but that didn't mean a miracle couldn't happen.

They knew what needed to be done. The forest had been knocked on its side. People in this valley knew all about their forest. Others were in the way, most of them strangers in uniforms from Down Below.

Trouble was brewing.

Three firefighters were put in charge on the east side those first few days: Arlington Deputy Fire Chief Tom Cooper, Lynnwood Assistant Fire Chief Gregg Sieloff14 and Marysville Fire Battalion Chief Scott Goodale.15

Nations knew that people like him — sawyers, loggers, road builders — could make a difference.

He took photos of the debris field with his smartphone.

In one photo, it looked like firefighters were standing around. Another photo showed locals digging.

Nations gave the images to his father-in-law, Kevin Ashe, who sits on the Darrington town council, and told him: Chew some ass.

Darrington is known for plainspoken people, and Ashe wasn't going for gracious. He showed the photos to those in charge and demanded: Fix this.

Sieloff listened. Nations took him to where the locals were digging. They were using a logging road to reach the southeast end of the slide, working with chainsaws, axes and poles in mud up to their chests.

Dayn Brunner16, a Tulalip police officer from Darrington, was looking for his sister, Summer. He showed firefighters where houses had been. He knew who lived in them. The firefighters needed a road and maps, heavy equipment and people who knew how to work it.

Something clicked. That's where locals knew they'd find their loved ones.

“It did not seem like a practical place to look for survivors,” Sieloff said. Everybody knew the odds.

It was time for action.

“We've got to do something now,” Sieloff thought. “We can't wait. If people want to volunteer, they can just show up and we can put them to work.”

Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin's17 trackhoe was out on the mud that afternoon. The hardest work started.

Oso mudslide victims and survivors

This map shows where victims and selected survivors of the mudslide lived. Click on pins to see who they were. Red pins indicate people who died. Blue pins indicate people who were rescued. Green pins indicate people who were away when the slide hit or were otherwise physically unharmed.

A place for news

The bulletin board outside the Darrington IGA is one place people shared news of the mudslide and words of comfort.

On April 28, the day active search operations were suspended, the board was dominated by a large mural of brightly colored flowers made by students at Nautilus K-8 school in Federal Way.

"I hope this makes you smile," read one message, written on a drawing of a blue tulip.

Nearby was a large, hand-lettered sign with Scripture:

" 'Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfaltering love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord who has compassion on you. — Isaiah 54:10"

— Scott North

Searching side by side

Tuesday morning found Cook sitting in the cab of her father's truck while he hauled an excavator on a low-boy trailer down the Darrington side of Highway 530.

He didn't slow as he neared the State Patrol roadblock. He wasn't taking a chance on somebody changing their mind about letting them in.

Washington Task Force 1 arrived at 4 a.m. The elite disaster-response team set up a few tents in what would soon become a mini-city. At its first briefing, the task force of police and firefighters from Pierce County was told they'd be working with volunteers.

Searching side by side with victims' friends and families threw protocol out the window. It was extraordinary.

They'd heard about Nations and other strong-willed locals who insisted on being involved. Some team members were apprehensive. But the locals knew where bodies had been found, where houses once stood.

They turned out to be the best resource the task force had.

That morning, machines were lined up on the east side of the slide, ready to go. On the Darrington side alone, 90 people, mostly from the valley, showed up with their tools.

Snohomish County's rescue experts were trying something new, as well. Each one was assigned five volunteers, with preference given to locals and the families of the missing.

Strangers became friends.

The Youngs improvised a taxi service18, driving rescuers on their two quads to the debris field via a shortcut across their land. They figured giving someone a ride gave them more time to work. They carried fuel, search dogs, water, lumber. Each quad put on 300 miles.

Elaine Young remembers thinking, “We're in Washington, and we don't even have coffee.” She brewed a pot using bottled water and power from a generator on the back of a truck.

“We all had tiny little cups this big,” she said, measuring about two inches between her thumb and forefinger, “but it was awful good.”

The mudslide buried the Steelhead Haven neighborhood that had been across the river.
The mudslide buried the Steelhead Haven neighborhood that had been across the river. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Neighborhood was gone

How stable was the hill? Was it ready to fall on the people now looking for the missing?

Finding out was Toby Hyde's job.

The assistant Oso fire chief was assigned to help geologists19 watch for another slide. The “soil squeezers,” as he'd call them, needed to record the relative positions of the trees. By tracking them, geologists hoped to get early warning if the earth was starting to move.

Hyde and the others scaled the hill, the one that had just fallen.

After anchoring themselves with climbing ropes, they inched out to the edge of the scarp. Whole trees, their roots snapped, leaned like deadfall traps waiting to spring.

They picked their way through to standing trees, wrapping the trunks with foil so people monitoring from below could tell whether the earth was shifting.

Oso assistant fire chief Toby Hyde scaled the hillside that had fallen, looking for signs of further danger. (Genna Martin / The Herald)

Hyde was stunned when he looked to the valley, 600 feet below. Steelhead Haven had been erased. The volunteer firefighters had been there many times, including happy visits each holiday season. One of them would dress as Santa and they'd roll their rigs through the neighborhood, chirping the sirens, calling neighbors and their kids to come outside. They'd gather donations for the food bank and hand out candy canes.

And they'd scout out potential volunteers. One who seemed interested was Billy Spillers, Jacob's dad. The slide took Spillers and three of his children.

People arrived at the little station house in Oso, wanting to help. It seemed they came from all over.

It was overwhelming, said Harper, the volunteer chief, “like being inside a beehive with somebody giving it a hard shake and a jet engine running outside.”

Professional firefighters from elsewhere showed up on their days off and handled the department's other calls.

A woman planted flowers out front. Ordinary folk washed the rigs, cleaned toilets, repaired a shed.

Mostly, though, the volunteers wanted to get out and dig.20

Names were put on a roster. As in Darrington, priority was given to locals and the families of the missing. A lottery decided the rest. Volunteers hung around for days, making themselves useful, waiting to get the nod.

Members of the Washington National Guard sort through debris.
Members of the Washington National Guard sort through debris.(Mark Mulligan / The Herald)

Traces of lost lives

Out on the slide, it was hard work on hallowed ground.

Conditions were cold, wet, miserable.

The mud clogged tools. It sucked off gloves and boots21 and ripped pant legs.

In places it gave way like quicksand. Other areas were under water, choked with barbed wire and blackberry bushes22 , almost the same.

All day, searchers from Washington Task Force 1 would look forward to mealtime, but not just for the food. That's when they got to wash their hands in scalding, soapy water.

For a few moments, their hands — and maybe only their hands — were warm and clean.

In the mud, they found family albums, Christmas ornaments, lawn sprinklers: people's lives, now in pieces.

Everything was cataloged and sealed in police evidence bags.

There were guns and bullets, necklaces and bracelets and rings, purses and wallets. In one, they found $13.

Workers and machinery search through debris for those missing after the mudslide. (Genna Martin / The Herald)

Technology and intuition

The debris held clues.

Haldeman, the sheriff's deputy who used his pickup as a command post, was named Detective of the Year in 2011. He took vacation time to stay at the slide, running an excavator. He dug an Everett police vest up from the mud. It belonged to retired officer Michael W. Pearson, 74.

Searchers also used debris flow analysis, a series of trajectory lines that predicted where remains would be found. The technology proved remarkably accurate.

At first, folks were skeptical.

Then they started seeing results. Neighbors' remains were found close together, carried hundreds of yards.

Nations became such a believer that he insisted an area be searched and searched again. Washington Task Force 1 had been through there more than once.

But Nations had a gut feeling. And it made sense to trust him, said Todd Magliocca, a Tacoma fire captain and task force division supervisor.

Nations was right. They brought another person home.

Ken Wesson, whose son Kody had helped save baby Duke that first day, joined a crew looking for remains. Those who work the woods with the fourth-generation logger say he can pick the hard hat from your head with a 65,000-pound loader and never even ruffle your hair.

He gently reminded those in the mud why they were there.

Whenever somebody was found, he told them: “We are helping a family. That's closure right there.”

Searchers work at the Oso mudslide site in this 360-degree composite view photographed April 18. (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)

A place to rely on

The teen wrapped her slender arms around a barrel-chested man with a shock of white hair.

She moved across the hardwood floor, saw the mayor, then hugged him, too. He whispered in her ear and she tightened her embrace.

Two days later, the girl’s sister was found. Another life lost.

The Darrington Community Center was built 60 years ago with donated labor and materials — pitching in is a town tradition. The center remains a testament to the logging town’s self-reliance.

It’s where everyone comes together for basketball games, wedding showers, funerals; a place of friendship and caring.

It’s where everyone gathered after the disaster. People felt safe there. Anyone could get a warm meal or take a hot shower. They could go there to cry, share, remember.

And to vent at community meetings, to pepper outsiders running the disaster response with tough questions and then offer a strong handshake afterward.

In the kitchen, folks from town cooked for all: families who had lost their homes, their loved ones who’d showed up in town, and anyone else helping in any way they could.

Quietly, through notes on bulletin boards, people opened up their homes to whoever needed a place to sleep.

The Darrington way.

— Eric Stevick and Rikki King

'Never so proud'

Cook became a key link between the search strategists and the earth movers. Well-organized and fearless, she could cut red tape, wheedle donations of hydraulic fluid, and track down replacement parts at a moment's notice.

She was on a mission. She'd promised Rae Smith she would find Summer.

Her friend's car was unearthed on the fifth day. Cook was summoned. She called Dayn Brunner, Summer's brother. In a tender family reunion, Summer's brothers lifted her body from the wreckage and carried her out of the hushed valley.

Smith was grateful. She also told Cook her work was not done, making her promise to do everything she could to bring back everyone.

That same day, Natasha Huestis learned that her baby daughter's body had been found. Her mother, Christina Jefferds,23  had been found Sunday, among the first bodies recovered. Jefferds, a doting grandmother and the wife of an Oso Fire Department captain, was with 4-month-old Sanoah the morning of the slide. Sanoah's name is Hawaiian for “mist in the mountains.”24

Huestis, 26, ran down the hill in her purple rubber boots. She dodged a security guard who tried to stop her, erroneously assuming she wasn't allowed in.

She raced out to Sanoah. She carried her baby back, thankful to all those who had worked to find her.

“I walked out of there, never so proud, with my shoulders back and long strides,” she said.

Crews kept searching until April 28. They found 15 more people, ending with 41 victims accounted for.

Sheriff's search and rescue Sgt. Danny Wikstrom25 had a hunch. Last week, he returned to an area in the debris field where searchers predicted remains would be found, but hadn't.

Working alone, he found Steven Hadaway, 53, a father who served in the Marine Corps and moved to Darrington in part because he felt most at home in small towns. He was installing a TV satellite dish at the home of Amanda Lennick, a new arrival to Steelhead Haven, when the slide carried him away.

Molly Kristine “Kris” Regelbrugge, 44, is the last victim missing. She was the wife of John Regelbrugge III, an active duty Navy commander who served 32 years. The couple died together. His body was found.

A robin is perched in the Oso mudslide area.
A robin is perched in the Oso mudslide area. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

A place for communion

Drawn by the beauty and the rich soil of the mountain foothills, homesteaders tamed the lush green land off Oso Loop Road more than a century ago. Dairies followed. These days, there’s a ranch for 100 world-class show horses.

A restaurant, too, known for its flat iron steak and pea soup.

Yet it’s more than that. Much more.

Rhodes River Ranch is the trusted neighbor behind the white post-and-rail fence, the friend who invites local kids over at Christmas each year.

After the mudslide, people around Oso gathered at the ranch to share stories and mourn at victims’ memorials, to raise money for survivors at benefit concerts and a bachelor auction.

It became a call center for family and friends, and gave space for National Guardsmen to privately process the horrors of the mud.

The ranch let folks be close to home, even when their homes were gone or far away. That’s what neighbors do.

Night after night, its restaurant stayed open late, letting those who needed to talk decide when it was closing time. The coffee was always hot.

And when the lights shone bright inside the riding arena, pastors’ words celebrated lives lost to the hill they called home.

It was time to say goodbye. And from up in the rafters, all around, a flock of sparrows sang.

— Eric Stevick

Reason to keep going

Many of those who first raced into the pile spent a month looking for victims. At 3 Rivers Cutting, a logging and trucking company west of Darrington, a group of seven recently gathered to reflect.

They don't volunteer information about the victims, other than to say it's a certainty that those who were plucked from the mud immediately after the hill fell were the only folks who had a chance at survival. Everyone else died from blunt-force trauma.

People worked so hard to bring everyone home that stopping has its own torment. They pray that the earth will yet give up the missing.

Sometimes the only way to fight the darkness is to laugh until you cry.26 Don't get Nations going about the search dogs.

“There's something I want to get off my chest right now,” he said. “Them dogs ain't worth a (expletive) for nothing.”

The dogs can't smell under water. They can't sniff through mud. And the slide swallowed refrigerators and freezers when it obliterated homes. He and others got tired of stopping their own work because a dog found somebody's pot roast or leftover lasagna.

Logger Ken Wesson knew people were watching, in the valley, and around the world. Most of all, he knew people doing the work needed to believe.

They raised flags as they labored, out of respect for the dead and their families, and to inspire each other.

Wesson's first flag-raising came near a shift change the first week. His brother, Roger Wesson, was running the machine. Roger asked their other brother, Alby Wesson, if he had his tree-climbing gear.

Why?

We are going to raise a flag in that tree, Roger said.

So Alby put on his spikes and climbed a cedar that still stood despite being mauled by the slide. He limbed and topped it, running up a cable to create a spar pole. Someone else grabbed what they called the “rubble” flag. The banner, pulled in tatters from the mud, still had all its stars and stripes.

Word spread. Machine operators powered down. Workers stopped to watch. A question was asked: Should the crew wait for somebody important to come say a few words? Hell no, came the answer.

“We're not waiting for the governor,” Wesson said. “We're not waiting for the president. We're not waiting for anybody. This is for the people who are under the ground that we are looking for, and this is for the people on top of the ground right here, right now.”

The banner rose to the top of the pole, then lowered to half staff.

Alby Wesson began to shout the Lord's Prayer.

“Our Father, who art in heaven …”

Others joined in, one by one. Loggers, firefighters, National Guard troops, federal disaster experts, standing together.

A flag waves over the debris at the mudslide site as work continues May 15.
A flag waves over the debris at the mudslide site as work continues May 15. (Genna Martin / The Herald)

A place of strength

The Sitka spruce stood firm as the mudslide scoured away its bark and so much more from this quiet valley.

Trees. Homes. People.

Gone.

Not the old spruce. Its branches still rose to the cold gray sky as rain and tears fell.

Trees like these only grow in river valleys soggy with rain and mist. It’s at least three stories tall with a trunk six feet across. How long it has been here, no one can say.

The Oso tree was one of the few landmarks for those who call this valley home as they waded into the mud. It greeted those who came to help them look for the lost.

It was there as the ground surrendered photos and furniture, blenders and Bibles — the comforts of homes ripped apart by earth that suddenly rolled across the valley 140 centuries after it last saw sun.

The spruce was there when searchers removed their hard hats and turned off their heavy equipment, the silence marking another person found. One of the dead was an angler who had longed for a home where he always heard a river’s song. He was found almost under its limbs.

In a landscape stripped of the familiar, the big scarred tree remains.

Searchers found a large cedar plank in the mud. They took it to a local mill. Planed and shaped, the fragrant slab was hung on the spruce’s trunk. A carved inscription memorializes the morning the hill fell: "Oso. 10:45 a.m. 3/22/14."

Workers lined up their excavators, like cavalry on a parade ground. They laid a wreath at the spruce's trunk, carried by two people from this place who spent a month in the mud, searching.

They stood firm.

The roots are strong.

— Scott North

'It just stays'

Oso followed people home.

In Tacoma earlier this month, Washington Task Force 1 worked to get organized again. Things came back from the slide in a jumble.

They can't get the mud out of their gear.

“I got Oso mud on my hat still,” said Micah Lundborg, a Pierce County sheriff's sergeant and a task-force diver. “You just can't spray it out. It just stays. You just always think about that.”

In Oak Harbor, the Navy rescue crew found a box of photographs a victim left behind in the helicopter. They got the box back to the family.

Rhonda Cook worked on the pile until the search was suspended. She skipped just one shift during those five weeks. It was the day she was at Summer's memorial.

She hasn't forgotten the promise she made to Summer's mother.

“I promised her again I will do everything I can do to make sure everybody comes out. I haven't been able to do the last one yet.”

Natasha Huestis goes to bed alone. Baby Sanoah is not there to cuddle at night. Huestis sleeps with her daughter's blanket, holding a teddy bear in the crook of her arm. She yearns for better days.

The valley is calm again. Birds sing. Toby Hyde, the assistant Oso fire chief who brought the geologists up the hill, wonders if the worst is yet to come. It's starting to sink in, the magnitude of what happened, of who was lost, of the pain radiating out from this valley. There will be lawyers, politics, blame. He hopes people don't lose sight of how they came together when it mattered most.

For three days, the Youngs didn't tell anyone the river had flooded the lower floor of their home.

It wasn't the priority, Elaine Young said. Her family lost so much less than their neighbors. “I have half a home that I can live in,” she said.

The familiar sound of log trucks grumbling by on the temporary road reassures her. “We're finding a way.”

Credits

Reporting: Eric Stevick, Rikki King, Scott North
Photography and multimedia: Genna Martin, Dan Bates, Annie Mulligan, Mark Mulligan, Sofia Jaramillo
Maps: Chuck Taylor
Editing: Robert Frank
Web design: Doug Parry
Web development: Kelsey Gochnour

This story would not have been possible without insights and assistance from many people. Here is a partial list: Jeff Anderson, Richard Andraschko, John Batiste, Beau Beckner, Gail Blacker, Parry Boogard, Dayn Brunner, Shari Brewer, Kristopher Clark, Rhonda and Frank Cook, Evan Craig, Jennifer Egger, Cynthia Fajardo, Randy Fay, Marc Ford, Linda Freilinger, Dan Good, Scott Goodale, Jeff Griffiths, Terry Haldeman, Isaac Hall, Willy Harper, Tom Hawkins, Wendy Helm, Barbara Hinshaw, Rebecca Hover, Natasha Huestis, Tom Huey, Howard Hunter, Toby Hyde, Shari Ireton, the Kuntz family, Kathi Lang, LoAnna and Kris Langton, Brenda LaSalle, Heather Logan, John Lovick, Micah Lundborg, Todd Magliocca, Brent McIntyre, Scott Mielcarek, Bronlea Mishler, Scott and Erika Morris, Lorraine Nations, Quinn Nations, Paul Naumann, Gary Nevius, Leo Notenboom, Sally Page, Kevin Paggao, Bill Quistorf, Dan Rankin, Tina and Gary Ray, Jeff Sass, David Scott, Kathie Sickenberger, Gregg Sieloff, Amanda Skorjanc, Vance Tjossem, Barbara Tolbert, Ty Trenary, Ian Walton, David Waner, Mike Welding, Ben Wells, Michael Wenzel, Ken Wesson, Bill Westlake, Danny Wikstrom, Chuck Wright, Shane Wright, Sean Wright, Elaine and Don Young, Ernie Zeller.

Victims of the mudslide

Select any name to learn more.

  • Alan Bejvl, 21
  • Shelley Bellomo, 55
  • Ron deQuilettes, 52
  • Tom Durnell, 65
  • Adam Farnes, 23
  • Julie Farnes, 59
  • Mark Gustafson, 55
  • Bonnie Gullikson, 91
  • Steven Hadaway, 53
  • Gloria Halstead, 67
  • Jerry Halstead, 75
  • Denver Harris, 14
  • Steve Harris, 52
  • Theresa Harris, 53
  • Sanoah Huestis, 4 months
  • Christina Jefferds, 45
  • Amanda Lennick, 31
  • Jerry Logan, 63
  • Jovon Mangual, 13
  • Linda McPherson, 69
  • Joseph Miller, 47
  • Larry Miller, 58
  • Sandy Miller, 64
  • Stephen Neal, 55
  • Michael Pearson, 74
  • Summer Raffo, 36
  • John Regelbrugge III, 49
  • Kris Regelbrugge, 44
  • Hunter Ruthven, 6
  • Katie Ruthven, 34
  • Shane Ruthven, 43
  • Wyatt Ruthven, 4
  • Marcy Satterlee, 61
  • Thom Satterlee, 65
  • Lon Slauson, 60
  • Billy Spillers, 30
  • Brooke Spillers, 2
  • Kaylee Spillers, 5
  • JuDee Vandenburg, 64
  • Lewis Vandenburg, 71
  • Brandy Ward, 58
  • Delaney Webb, 19
  • William Welsh, 66

Who helped

Who helped

See the list of businesses, people, organizations and governments that participated in on-scene rescue and recovery or provided crucial support after the mudslide.

Oso moments

Oso moments

As he helped to coordinate the community's response to the March 22 mudslide, Snohomish County Executive John Lovick experienced what he came to call "Oso moments," when the things he had seen or heard simply became too much. There have been great moments, too, most brought by others' acts of kindness. Read what he and others recall here.

What's next

What's next

A lot of hard work is left to be done. Read about what will attract attention in the coming months.

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