Oso chaplain helps first responders with the hard work of healing

OSO — Fire Chief Willy Harper and chaplain Joel Johnson sat down in the fire hall kitchen Wednesday morning for a quiet breakfast of eggs and bacon.

The all-volunteer fire station, just four miles from the fatal March 22 mudslide, has become their full-time workplace. It bustled for weeks.

On Wednesday morning, though, it was just the two of them there. The pace of day-to-day operations after the disaster has slowed, but it has not stopped.

Johnson’s job is to provide a comforting presence and spiritual guidance to the emergency responders and to the families who lost 43 loved ones. He joined families during the recoveries from the mud, and he led services for the dead. He also helps around the fire station with whatever needs doing.

Back home, his wife, Brianna, has been caring for their first child, Jaelyn, who was born March 14 with a heart defect.

The family had been home from the hospital just two nights when Johnson was asked to respond to Oso. He was told there was flooding, and a barn roof had been pushed onto Highway 530.

After he got there and realized the scale of the disaster, he asked the firefighters for permission to stay that night. That grew into a full-time job that’s been funded through September. Now, Johnson’s chaplains group hopes to find a way to keep him there the rest of the year.

Johnson, 29, grew up on a farm in Illinois, where he attended an Assemblies of God church. As a teen, his path strayed and his future darkened, he said. A year after high school, he decided to delve back into his faith and went to Bible college, where he met his wife.

They moved to Arlington, his wife’s hometown, about three years ago, where they are pastors at Arlington Assembly. Through the grapevine, Johnson heard about Stanwood Camano Incident Support, a nonprofit group of chaplains that primarily serves Camano Island and north Snohomish County.

At the fire station the first day, Johnson helped those who were beginning to create lists of the names of the missing. He worked with another local fire chief to coordinate information.

When folks began to flee the valley — mud and debris had dammed the North Fork Stillaguamish River, creating flash-flood danger — Harper and others knew they couldn’t leave.

If a flood came and the bridges failed, they didn’t want their neighbors to be stranded without help, Harper said. The crews were moving to Assistant Fire Chief Toby Hyde’s property on high ground.

Johnson asked Hyde if he could come along.

Hyde told him: “Get your (butt) in the truck.”

“Words weren’t minced too much,” Harper said.

The crews slept in their rigs or on the floor of Hyde’s barn and shop. Harper remembers hearing the mice scurrying in the dark.

Johnson was asked to keep an eye on Seth Jefferds, an Oso firefighter whose wife and granddaughter were missing and later found dead.

Those first few weeks, Johnson knew he couldn’t sit at the fire station and wait for people to come to him. He joined the crews digging in the mud. He was present for the recovery of six of the victims.

“He just went out through the muck, and he was right there with them,” Harper said.

Like the others, Johnson was “seeing things nobody should see,” Harper said.

When Johnson looks back, he finds it hard to remember how he kept going through it all, he said.

“My belief is that God was helping me sustain,” he said.

During the recoveries, he would stand with survivors and put his arm around them, he said. If they wanted to talk, he would listen. Some shared memories. Some had to walk away: The sights were too much.

In the worst moments, Johnson reminded himself that the Bible says to rely on God no matter what, he said. He needed his faith to provide the extra jolt, the final reserve of energy, to get through each day.

He found comfort in Psalm 119:116, a translation of which reads, “Lord, sustain me as you promised, that I may live. Do not let my hope be crushed.”

He was just one small part of a massive chaplain response, he said. Stanwood Camano Incident Support chaplains were among those staffing the emergency shelters and have been involved in the long-term recovery efforts.

Johnson and other chaplains have been paired with families for follow-up care, he said. They don’t want anyone to feel alone. Folks have different faiths. Some aren’t ready to talk.

Johnson is there for them all.

“A lot of the guys, especially firefighters, they get that macho in them, they don’t want to admit that anything’s going on, but he’s got a little more expertise,” Harper said. “He can pry it out of them.”

For the Oso firefighters, Johnson has become a brother and a friend, said Hyde, the assistant chief. He has been there for them, and the community, through the challenges, Hyde said.

“We’re proud to have him with us and proud to call him part of our family, absolutely,” Hyde said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

Chaplains group

Stanwood Camano Incident Support is a nonprofit chaplains group primarily serving Camano Island and north Snohomish County. The group has been funding Joel Johnson’s full-time assignment as a chaplain to the Oso fire station since the March 22 mudslide.

The group is raising money to keep Johnson in Oso through the end of the year. For information on donating, contact Ralph Fry at 206-669-6747.

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