Grit and heart keep Darrington going

  • Sun Mar 30th, 2014 12:31am
  • News

By Dan Catchpole Herald Writer

DARRINGTON — Roast turkey, mashed potatoes, cole slaw and green beans.

That was dinner Saturday for a couple hundred volunteers and relief workers crammed into Darrington Community Center’s dining hall.

Outside, rain fell for the third straight day.

Many of these people have worked nearly nonstop since the March 22 slide wiped out the Steelhead Drive neighborhood and other homes near Oso, about 16 miles west of here on now-blocked Highway 530.

Some have been searching the debris field, others have been sorting supplies that are pouring in, others are cooking hundreds of meals. Some are providing counseling for members of this town, which residents say is a family, not a community.

Everyone here knows someone on the lists of missing and dead from the Oso mudslide.

Saturday morning marked one week since the tragedy. At the community center, which is serving as a supply depot, emergency shelter and kitchen, about 50 people in the gymnasium joined hands and stood silently in a circle at 10:37 a.m., a week to the minute after the catastrophic slide in the North Fork Stillaguamish River valley.

Afterward, some people hugged, some cried. Then everyone got back to work.

With 30 people still missing in a debris field covering a square mile, Darrington is still largely in disaster mode.

But the chaos and urgency of the first week are giving way to structure and routine. The sprint is turning into a marathon.

On Friday, Cathy Hagen, who manages the community center, had her first break since the slide hit. She did laundry and laid down for a couple hours.

“When I woke up, that’s when it came” — the tears, she said.

She thought of the people caught in the slide and the wall of debris that swept across the valley floor. And she thought of the people spared by a few feet from the flow.

Like many in Darrington, Hagen’s faith is holding her up. Her husband, Les, is pastor at Glad Tidings Assembly in town.

“We don’t know why it happened, but it makes us stronger,” the 69-year-old said.

Logger up.

That’s a Darrington phrase for carrying on when you’re worn out, worn down and out of hope.

Logger up.

That is what this isolated logging town has done for generations.

That is what Jared Grimmer and his teammates did in 2003, when the high school’s basketball team bounced back after three straight losses to go on to win the state championship, beating Shoreline Christian 64-43 in Spokane.

After the final loss, everyone on the team put aside nearly everything else to focus on their season, Grimmer said. “We sacrificed everything for each other.”

Residents filled the stands in the community center gym to see the Loggers’ run to the tournament. And it seemed like everyone in town traveled to Spokane for the state semifinal and championship games, he said.

After college, Grimmer, 28, taught math and coached baseball in Darrington for a few years, and now he’s a high school teacher in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

When the slide hit, he had to come home.

Early Tuesday, he drove to Salt Lake City to pick up his younger brother, Jordan, then turned toward Darrington to do “whatever I could do to help,” he said.

He’s been out searching and shoveling debris. He’s helped sort supplies. He’s stocked shelves at the IGA, the only grocery in town. And he’s tried to spread smiles when he can.

Kids he used to coach have asked him how to make sense of the slide.

“Life sucks sometimes, but you have to get up, put your shoes on and put one foot in front of the other,” he said.

Even in the wake of this disaster, Grimmer has found some inspiration.

The debris field “looks like the moon,” punctuated by clay blocks the size of semis, he said.

It looks like someone put trees, dirt, houses, boats, trucks, cars and rocks in a blender, put it on mince, and spilled it out on the valley floor, Grimmer said.

“Then you see this little fern, perfectly rooted, untouched, sitting in a clump of dirt, like someone picked it up from the hillside and set it down,” he said.

He shrugged his shoulders, “an act of God, I guess.”

As rain fell Saturday night, basketball was back in Darrington. Across the parking lot from the community center, at the elementary school, National Guard troops and town kids played a pickup game in the gym.

Meanwhile, on the west side of the mudslide in Oso, a constant stream of volunteers and others brought food and supplies to the fire department on Saturday. There, too, the moment of silence was observed by searchers and their supporters, out front. Everyone faced an American flag that was flying at half-staff.

In a moment, it was over. And as in Darrington, hats and helmets went back on and volunteers got back to work.

Bartender Tera Wallen and a co-worker from the Eagles Club in Stanwood, Jamie McIntosh, stood silently outside the station with the others. They had come to give to the fire chief $2,086 they raised.

“It was so warm and compassionate and humbling,” said Wallen, who grew up in Arlington. “Those people are my people,” she said with her 11-year-old son, Jacob Smith, by her side.

Wallen and McIntosh were certain volunteers would not give up hope. “This is their mission. This is what they do, and they’re not going to give up … until everyone’s found,” said McIntosh, holding her 10-month-old baby, Faith McIntosh.

“They will not stop,” said Wallen.

Herald photographer Mark Mulligan contributed from Oso.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com.