By Andrea Brown Herald Writer
She was cleaning the bathroom.
He was sleeping in.
It began as an ordinary Saturday morning for Robert and Roberta Aylesworth.
After nearly 49 years of marriage, life was comfortably predictable in the Oso home where the couple, known as Bob and Bobbi, raised four children next door to her parents on Highway 530. That morning four weeks ago, Bobbi figured she’d knock out some chores until Bob was ready to go shopping with her.
“I heard this horrible noise,” recalled Bobbi, 67. “I thought, my gosh, it sounds like a freight train. I opened up the bathroom window and I looked out and it looked like the ground was shooting up.”
Occasional earthquakes were part of living on the rural mountainside setting they’d left Lynnwood for in 1977.
“I went into the bedroom and told Bob, ‘I think we’re having one horrendous earthquake,’ ” Bobbi said.
Bob felt it. “I said, ‘Yep, about a 5-point,’ ” he said.
He stayed in bed.
“Then, wham. The bed went that way and I went this way. Holy crap, then it was crunch-bang.”
The force of the mudslide thrust them and their home hundreds of yards across their eight acres. The couple found themselves pinned near the top of a 40-foot pile of twisted wood, metal, trees, furniture, cars and other things swept by the powerful mudslide. Its speed has been estimated at 60 mph.
Bobbi regained consciousness, trapped among boards, insulation and bedsprings.
“I could move my right hand and left hand, but not anything else,” she said.
“I remembered the Lord’s Prayer really quick. I said, ‘Nope, you can’t have me. I haven’t met Xander yet’ — my great-grandson that had just been born.”
Bob, 68, was lodged in a pocket of rubble several feet away from her. He was awake the entire time. His arm and leg throbbed with pain. The retired construction worker kept his calm. He’d been on the other side of disasters as a volunteer firefighter. He started reassuring his wife.
“He rubbed my feet,” Bobbi said. “He went into volunteer fireman mode: Are you hurt? Are you bleeding? Do you have anything broke?”
He was able to move enough to poke a hole in the debris above her feet to let light in.
“I was lying there thinking, I’ve got air. I could probably be OK for a few days,” she said. She wasn’t so sure about Bob, though. “I had clothes on. He didn’t.”
They can laugh about it now.
“I was lying there. He was rubbing my feet. We were quiet,” Bobbi said. “When I talked, I sucked in insulation.”
She worried about her parents, Bonnie and Larry Gullikson — “Grandma and Papa,” as they were known. But there was nothing she could do.
After about three hours, Bobbi thought she heard a distant voice outside the rubble. She braved swallowing insulation to tell Bob. He yelled for help.
It set precarious rescue efforts in motion. “I wasn’t afraid until they started up the chainsaws by my head,” Bobbi said.
They were hoisted from the rubble in two separate helicopters, she in a basket and he on a backboard.
“Away I went, in my birthday suit,” Bob said. “Around and around and around.”
He was taken to Skagit Valley Hospital. She went to Cascade Valley Hospital.
Bobbi had cuts and nasty bruises. Bob’s crushing wounds included a wrist broken in 12 places and broken toes. In the ER, while medical workers hovered around him, he had a request: “My bowling ball is back there at the bottom of the pile; would you go get it?”
He was unaware of the extent of the tragedy. He still thought it was an earthquake.
“Being upstairs, I think that gave us a chance,” Bobbi said.
* * *
News that something terrible had happened in Oso jolted the county within minutes.
Back in Stanwood, Bob and Bobbi’s children tried desperately to reach their parents.
“We found out the house was gone. We were frantically calling around,” daughter Monique Tollenaar said.
“A family friend said there’s nothing there. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad.”
The friend searching for the couple recognized the roof and siding of their home in the debris. It was his voice that Bobbi heard and Bob’s yell that led him to their rescue.
The couple built the house 37 years ago next to Bobbi’s folks before Monique, the oldest of three girls, started middle school and their youngest, son Doug, entered kindergarten. “The classes were getting so big in Lynnwood. We decided it was time,” Bobbi said.
All four Aylesworth kids graduated from Darrington High School. Three live in Stanwood and one lives in Pasco.
“We grew up all those years with Grandma and Papa next door,” Monique said. “We couldn’t get away with anything.”
Bobbi’s mom, Bonnie, 91, and Larry Gullikson, 81, were married 55 years. Technically, he’s her stepdad, but to her, he’s Dad. He and Bob worked together for Sprinkler Fitters UA Local 699 in Seattle, which has set up a fund for the families.
Larry Gullikson was outside when the mudslide hit.
“He said a giant mudball was coming at him,” Bobbi said. “They found him trying to claw his way out. He was making noise. He was in the mud.”
He was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center with injuries that included five broken ribs, a punctured lung and lacerations.
Bonnie Gullikson, who had dementia, had been inside sleeping. She was among the missing for almost three weeks. Alex Aylesworth, 20, spent days searching the debris for his great-grandma, his friends by his side.
Her body was recovered about a week ago. A celebration of life service will be held when they can assemble her 58 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
“I didn’t want to watch the news until I knew Mom was found,” Bobbi said. “Hopefully, she didn’t suffer. She was found intact.”
Bobbi said her dad hasn’t grasped the magnitude of the disaster. They’ve been keeping him away from the television. “He knows that Mom’s gone,” she said. “He’s aware of what happened, but he doesn’t get that everything is gone.”
He was transferred from Harborview last week to a rehab center. Bobbi said he can live with them, wherever that winds up being.
They hope to meet their rescuers in person someday. For now, the message they want to get out is gratitude.
“We want to thank all the workers. The volunteers. The ladies in the kitchen,” Bobbi said.
“Everybody,” Bob said.
Homeowners insurance won’t cover the house they’d paid off and recently renovated, or the contents of nearly 50 years. Her parents’ place also isn’t covered.
The couple budgeted for retirement, but not for starting over from scratch, even with FEMA and other aid.
“That house was more than a house,” Bobbi said. “It was a gathering place.”
The gathering place now is their son’s Stanwood home, where they are staying. Their children are helping them, from the socks up.
“That was the kids’ revenge,” Bobbi said. “They got to dress us. They got Bob orange sweatpants.”
Their days are spent going to medical appointments. The kids deal with the calls and paperwork in the bureaucratic aftermath. Monique said they had to “Get Jesse” from KING-TV to get her parents’ cellphones replaced without paying a huge fee.
A few of their belongings were recovered. The grandson who worked tirelessly trying to find Grandma found three glass bells from her collection of more than 100. Also found was her whimsical cloth “Dammit Doll” and Papa’s wallet.
“It was like Christmas,” Monique said.
And, yes, Bob’s bowling ball was retrieved from the wreckage.
His bowling arm has an external metal cast that screws through flesh and bone into a metal plate. It looks as painful as it is, Bob said, but he’s already counting the strikes.
“The doctor promised me I would bowl like a pro,” he said.
Family members say love and humor has helped them get through the ordeal.
“We’ve had a little bit of survivor’s remorse,” Bobbi said.
Fourteen men, women and children were pulled from the edge of the slide that day; 13 survived. Thirty-nine people died in the slide. Four remain missing.
“Why us?” Bobbi said. “We both agree we are probably going to have counseling. I really haven’t cried. I get weepy and emotional. But to actually break down, I haven’t. I will. I’ll get there.”
How to help
A fund for the family has been established by Sprinkler Fitters UA Local 699 business manager Stanton Bonnell. To help, go to www.gofundme.com/7z7yxg.