By Rikki King, Eric Stevick and Amy Nile Herald Writers
OSO — President Barack Obama extended his visit in Oso on Tuesday afternoon to speak privately with about 70 people who lost loved ones in the March 22 mudslide.
The Oso Community Chapel, a small country church along Highway 530, moved most of the pews out of the room and created small, private areas for families to talk with the president.
Obama had been briefed on each family’s loss. He listened to each family share their story and then offered words of care and concern, the Rev. Gary Ray said.
Steven Hadaway, 53, of Darrington, is one of two people still missing. His brothers John, Frank and Bryon met with the president.
John Hadaway said it was an emotional day for all of the families who felt the common bond of losing loved ones. They also met FEMA workers who had helped them through their darkest hours.
In a way, he said, it was like a family reunion because they had grown so close.
Hadaway said the president hugged everyone who lost family and listened intently to their stories, asking questions that showed compassion.
“To me, what I got out of today is if you cut him, he bleeds red,” John Hadaway said. “He has a heart. He was genuine.”
Obama on Tuesday also promised continued help as Oso, Darrington and Arlington dig out from the mudslide’s devastation.
“We are not going anywhere. We will be here as long as it takes,” Obama told a crowd gathered at the firehouse in Oso.
Before the slide, few people likely had heard of Oso, he said, mispronouncing the name. But people across the country have been moved by the way the community has pulled together and helped one another, Obama said.
Earlier, Obama saw the magnitude of the damage himself, touring the area by helicopter.
Marine One flew directly over the site, giving him a view of the massive debris field and the North Fork Stillaguamish River, which remains choked with mud, boulders and downed trees.
A couple of bright-yellow excavators could be seen operating below, digging in the earth as part of the ongoing effort to recover the bodies of those who died. Amid the wreckage, the U.S. flag flew at half staff.
In his speech at the Oso fire station, Obama praised the way people had teamed up to do the hard work of looking for loved ones and forging a path ahead.
The character of the people living in the Stillaguamish Valley and their deep love for the place should inspire all Americans, he said.
“This is family,” the president said. “And these are folks who love this land, and it’s easy to see why — because it’s gorgeous. And there’s a way of life here that’s represented. And to see the strength in adversity of this community I think should inspire all of us, because this is also what America is all about.”
His message was one of unity.
“When times get tough, we look out for each other,” the president said. “We get each other’s backs. And we recover and we build, and we come back stronger. And we’re always reminded that we’re greater together. That’s how we’ll support each other every step of the way.”
After his speech, Obama hugged Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin and Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert and other elected leaders. He then greeted individual rescue workers.
The first hand he shook was that of Snohomish County helicopter rescue volunteer Ernie Zeller, 45, a Redmond firefighter who lives in Snohomish, and who was among the crew who helped save lives the day the hillside fell.
Arlington Rural Fire Chief Travis Hots was among the crowd as well. He helped organize the response. Also in attendance were Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary and John Pennington, the county’s director of Emergency Management.
Obama talked about meeting with victims’ families Tuesday afternoon and how they’d “showed incredible strength and grace” under unimaginably difficult circumstances.
He recalled how one firefighter from the community had written that the people working on the site “understood this was not an ordinary job. This wasn’t just a matter of moving earth.” It was, he said, about “honoring and respecting the lives” of those lost.
It was the first time Tolbert was ever in a room with a president, she said.
“I was very impressed with his genuine nature,” she said.
Later in the day, she spoke to some of the families who met with Obama at the chapel. They knew the president had juggled his schedule to spend more time with them.
“That meant so much to them, which in turn means so much to me,” she said.
It was important for the president to see the devastation himself, to understand what has happened, Darrington Mayor Rankin said Tuesday evening.
“The event itself was so destructive that until you see it in person you can’t imagine it,” Rankin said. “What that area looks like and knowing there were homes and families who were there and how they lost everything. For him to see it first-hand and to be there and to talk to the families, will help with continuing to support our communities — Arlington, Oso and Darrington — in the effort of recovery at the site and recovery of our communities.”
After his speech, Obama headed back to Paine Field. At 5:32 p.m. he took off and continued a planned trip to Asia.
The visit to Oso marked one month since the disaster that took at least 41 lives and destroyed part of Highway 530. Officials have now identified all 41 of the people confirmed to have died in the slide. Highway 530 remains blocked. A flood warning is in place for the river east 0f the slide.
State officials confirmed Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be sending $7.5 million to Snohomish County in the coming days to cover some of the county’s costs incurred in the rescue and recovery.
The county so far has submitted claims totaling $10.1 million for expenses between March 22 and April 18. FEMA will pay 75 percent of the tab.
Obama last visited Snohomish County in 2012 to tour the Boeing Co.’s 787 production line at Paine Field. He is the sixth sitting president to set foot in the county, and the first to come here after a public tragedy.
Air Force One, a 747-200 built in Everett, touched down at Paine Field at 12:38 p.m. Those waiting to greet the president included Gov. Jay Inslee, Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen and Suzan DelBene.
The governor, Murray and Cantwell accompanied Obama in his helicopter.
A sparse crowd gathered nearby to watch. They were outnumbered by media and officials. Arlington High School’s yearbook editor Hannah Dinero joined the press pool to photograph Obama’s visit. The senior said the disaster hit just before the start of spirit week. “We all knew in the back of our minds something bigger was happening,” she said. The yearbook staff decided to dedicate a page to honor Oso.
Lovick spoke with the president several times as the visit progressed, and told him that when he flew over Oso he would see devastation, “but he would also see what a resilient community we have.”
Later, after Obama met with the families, Lovick said he heard him say, “Your community is going to come back and it will be Oso strong.”
After Obama viewed the scene, Marine One landed at Arlington. All became still as multiple CV-22 Ospreys and other aircraft arrived.
Firefighters from Arlington and Marysville snapped pictures as Obama got into the motorcade to Oso. Along the route, many onlookers stood by the road, waving and snapping photos. A couple held up massive American flags. Signs along the road displayed different messages: “God bless Oso families” and “Thank you for your prayers and support.”
The procession passed a pickup truck in a front yard, covered in football memorabilia and signs bearing the name of Jovon Mangual, 13, who died in the disaster.
As Obama met with victims’ families, the Oso firehouse filled with people awaiting his address. The walls were covered in maps and photos of the slide scene. There were thank-you banners made by local schoolchildren.
Members of the Snohomish County sheriff’s helicopter rescue team sat up front, including chief pilot Bill Quistorf. People stood atop chairs to get the best view. Some had their cellphone cameras trained on the lectern to capture the first photo.
The sun was shining. A small girl wearing a dress patterned after the U.S. flag waved from her front yard.
Sheriff Trenary said it was an honor to meet the president, whom he thanked for the federal help.
The presidential recognition for all those who have worked so hard was nice, but by Tuesday afternoon the sheriff was ready to continue on with the recovery efforts.
“We are the home team,” Trenary said. “I think we just want to get back to work and finish the job.”