Kris Regelbrugge, the last Oso mudslide victim, lived on her own terms
For weeks, the 43rd and last of the Oso mudslide victims became the symbol of unfinished business, the rallying cry to press on.
To her family, she was so much more than the boilerplate sentence in follow-up news reports of the worst natural disaster in Snohomish County history.
She was the middle of three children, the high-octane girl who once picked her mom a bouquet of poison oak that left her hands and face severely swollen.
By the sixth grade, she dropped her given name of Molly and announced to her family that she would be “Kris,” a shortened version of her middle name.
Her parents say she lived life on her own terms.
Her future husband would learn that, too, on the day they met.
She turned down John Regelbrugge when he asked her to dance at a Black Angus steak house. She made him wait the entire night before taking him up on his offer.
They would prove a worthy match over the next quarter century: both had trouble sitting still.
An enlisted man who became an officer, Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III completed 19 deployments before he died in the March 22 mudslide. Kris raised their children while he was at sea.
A week after the slide, her family already was missing her mischief. She'd been so adept at pulling pranks her parents and sister would mark their calendars and screen their calls each April Fools Day.
Kris had a tattoo of the sun on her big toe. That way she figured she could lift her foot each morning to watch the sun rise.
In 2007, the Regelbrugges moved into the Steelhead Haven neighborhood of Oso, enrolled their children in Darrington schools and quickly made friends across the Stillaguamish Valley.
“It was going to be their forever home,” said her mother, Lynn Holleran.
‘We love each other'
The rain fell hard on St. Patrick's Day, one week before the hillside gave way.
Kris decorated her home and prepared the food. Three crock pots of corned beef bubbled on the kitchen counter. There was plenty of bangers and mash to go around. Folding chairs were upholstered in festive patterns. Guests wore goofy green derbies.
Her sister, Charlotte McCalister, came up from Kitsap County. Many of the Regelbrugge's neighbors were there as well, bringing Irish soda bread and other dishes.
The revelers, more than two dozen adults and children, held hands and said grace, finishing with: “We love our bread, we love our butter, but most of all, we love each other.”
Photographs taken that night provide a glimpse into a remarkably tight-knit community that seven days later would be gone.
Kris's dad, Dan Holleran, 70, visited Steelhead Haven many times. “If you were loading wood, you couldn't be out there 30 seconds without someone helping you,” he said.
Kris watched the children grow up and move away. Kyle and Brian joined the Navy; Scott enlisted in the Army. Sara would become the senior class and student body president at Darrington High School before heading off to college.
Along the way, Kris opened her home to her children's friends, some of whom needed a place to stay or a firm nudge in the right direction. One boy lived with the family for the better part of a year.
Day of chaos
McCalister received a message from Sara on the morning of the slide.
“Hey Auntie,” her niece asked, “Have you heard from Mom and Dad?”
That was the beginning of an agonizing four months. March 22 proved exceptionally cruel.
By 1 p.m., McCalister felt a knot tighten in her stomach.
She and her husband, John, drove north.
Bad information from the Internet and relief workers led them to believe Kris had been taken to a hospital in Mount Vernon. When they arrived, her sister wasn't there.
By the time they reached Everett, they got another call that Kris was okay. They returned to Mount Vernon, only to again be turned away.
Sara went to her grandparents' home in Port Ludlow in Jefferson County. They also received misinformation.
Someone called to report that both John and Kris were alive.
“We were all thanking God,” he said.
The phone rang again. There had been a mistake. The first caller had been reading off the missing list, not the roster of those who had been found.
“Everything was mass confusion,” Dan Holleran said. “We don't hold a grudge.”
The family's attention turned from hospitals to the debris field.
The mud surrendered John's medals and ceremonial sword, the large saws that had hung on the wall over the wood stove and a school photo of Kris when she was young.
John Regelbrugge's sons and brothers found him the first week.
Now, if they could only find Kris.
For a few days, it appeared they had with the discovery of a woman with a tattoo on her leg. The family provided a photo of Kris's morning glory tattoo. Sara gave a DNA sample.
“The guys were exhausted,” McCalister recalled. “We were just wanting to find out it was Kris. We were going to have one funeral for them.”
It wasn't Kris.
By the time of John Regelbrugge's memorial at the Everett Navy base, some in the family were beginning to doubt that Kris would ever be found.
Seth Jefferds, a Steelhead Haven neighbor and captain with the Oso Fire Department, approached Dan Holleran at the service. He knew about loss. His wife and baby granddaughter died in the slide.
Jefferds told him: “I give you my solemn word we won't quit looking.”
On April 28, Sheriff Ty Trenary announced the active search was being suspended. Only Kris and Steven Hadaway, a Darrington man who was installing a satellite dish at a Steelhead Haven home when the slide hit, were still out there.
An informal search continued. On May 22 came word that another body had been recovered.
“We prayed for him just as much as we prayed for Kris,” McCalister said.
The Hadaways did the same.
Steven Hadaway was the 42nd slide victim found.
After the slide, the American flag at the McCalister home was lowered to half staff.
They hung a yellow ribbon, just as they had when their nephew Scott was stationed in Afghanistan.
As spring turned to summer, McCalister decided she would return the flag to full staff in September.
She began to wonder if Kris would have wanted to be found. She imagined a vista with a marker along Highway 530 remembering her sister and considered planting hundreds of daffodil bulbs in the debris field in her honor.
Search-and-rescue crews and volunteers from the valley never stopped looking.
Kris was found July 22. She was 18 feet underground.
“It was almost disbelief to me,” Dan Holleran said. “It was like removing a thousand pounds from my shoulders.”
The family is thankful for the fact that Scott left the home in Oso the morning of the slide to work a shift at the Darrington mill.
They are grateful to countless people.
Early on, Dan Holleran volunteered at the Oso Fire Hall and saw the caravans of donations come through. The Navy lodged the family, provided chaplains and took care of the logistical minutiae. They appreciate all of those who prayed for Kris and especially the locals and loggers who searched for her, even when that meant defying authority.
It has been more than a month since Kris was found and five months since the slide. The family is planning her memorial.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org
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