Darrington residents live with heavy hearts and prayers

DARRINGTON — Through all the pain and worry there is a sense of resilience in this mountain town where the death toll from Saturday’s giant mudslide rises daily.

Cathy Hagen, the wife of the town’s Assembly of God pastor, sees it each day.

“Everybody is still in shock, but everyone is doing something,” she said. “This is our people. They want to be here to help.”

Hagen watched Monday evening as 180 people, many who lost their homes, were fed three meals at the Darrington Community Center. In a community of roughly 4,000 inside and outside city limits, everyone feels the pain, she said.

“There have been heavy hearts and lots of prayers,” she said. “It is constant.”

School support

There are rumors of lives lost among Darrington School District’s 445 students. On Monday, there was no official confirmation.

“We just have to make sure that the kids understand there really isn’t any way to say we know exactly who is missing,” Superintendent Dave Holmer said. “Everything we have heard has been word of mouth from a variety of sources.”

About a half dozen Darrington teachers make their homes on the Arlington side of the slide. They all have been offered places to stay in town.

“This community has come together. Always does in these tough times,” Holmer said. “That’s the way it’s done here. People are not expected to go through this alone.”

Gratitude and sadness

For Cory and Julie Kuntz, the past three days have been filled with deep loss and profound gratitude.

The Darrington couple left their home just off Highway 530 about 45 minutes before Saturday’s devastating slide wiped out their neighborhood.

They were driving to Tacoma to watch their son Quinton, 15, play a baseball game for the Darrington High School Loggers when the calls and texts flooded her cellphone.

They soon learned that their home had been destroyed. Later, they found out that their aunt and neighbor, Linda McPherson, had died in the slide. They were told about the heroic efforts to save her husband, Gary, who was buried in the mud inside the home. Darrington Firefighters and family friends dug him out of the mud while powerlines swayed nearby, a propane tank was spouting smokey vapor, and the North Fork Stillaguamish River began to rise.

Julie and Marc Ford raced to the McPhersons’ home, at the Kuntzes’ urging. Julie Ford held Gary McPherson’s hand and tried to comfort him as he cried for his wife.

Amid the chaos, Julie Ford saw determination in the faces of the volunteer firefighters.

On Sunday the Kuntzes and others went to a neighbor’s home that had been spared from the slide, but was at risk of flooding. They and friends then ventured to the rubble that was their home to try to retrieve a safe with important papers.

“The slide pushed our house 100 yards. The best description is: it was like our house was put in a blender,” Julie Kuntz said.

Inside they heard a whimper.

Buddy, the family’s beloved chocolate Lab, was still alive. They’d left him on the front porch and had given him up for dead. Volunteers cut through carpet, walls and doors to reach him.

One Monday, Quinton gave Buddy a bath and tied a blue bandana around his neck.

In a time of so much sadness and grief, when an entire community was hungry for a bit of good news, Buddy brought some joy.

“It is a win,” Julie Kuntz said. “For everyone.”

Determined to go in

As rescue workers combed debris on the Darrington side of the slide Monday, impatient friends and relatives tried to make their own way in despite warnings to keep clear.

One young man, his face raw with emotion, drove up to within 100 yards of a road closed sign on Highway 530 outside of Darrington. He kicked off his tennis shoes and pulled on boots before strapping on a black backpack.

He was turned away at the checkpoint.

“I’ll find a way in,” he vowed. “I have family and friends up there.”

He then drove off, disappearing down a side road.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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