‘Our story could have been so much different’

ARLINGTON — They’re the kind of people who take care of their own. And that’s what saved Ron and Gail Thompson’s lives March 22.

The couple left their Steelhead Drive home just minutes before the Oso mudslide obliterated their neighborhood. They had talked Gail’s mother, Mary Jira, 85, into going along despite her not feeling well that morning.

The three headed to Costco to pick up fresh buns for a church youth group get-together.

“You know, the kids gotta be fed,” said Ron Thompson, 66. “Our get-togethers are about more than just community. It’s family.”

The Thompsons had planned to host the group in their home on Saturday morning. At the last minute, they changed the date to Sunday.

“Our story could have been so much different. We’re just so blessed,” said Jennifer Johnson, the couple’s middle daughter. “We’re so lucky.”

The Thompsons raised their five daughters on a farm near Lake Stevens. In 2003, they decided to downsize to a small cabin on five acres along the North Fork Stillaguamish River.

The family showed up and went to work, making the property their home.

“Boy did we shake up that neighborhood,” Johnson, 42, said. “My parents’ whole lives were invested in Steelhead Drive.”

The Thompsons kept a garden that they allowed anyone to take produce from. Ron Thompson often lent a hand by mowing his neighbors’ lawns.

Kelly Johnson, 20, said she has always envisioned having her wedding at her grandparents’ picturesque place.

“It was paradise,” Ron Thompson said. “Nobody will be able to go back.”

Even in tough times, the Thompsons looked out for others. When a slide blocked the Stilly in 2006, causing flooding, they cooked soup and Tater Tots for news crews and disaster workers. They let the Army Corps of Engineers set up camp on their land.

Jennifer Johnson said the information she received after the 2006 slide led her to believe that her parents’ house was safe.

“Never in a million, billion years did I think I would be getting the call I got on Saturday,” she said. “It was just heart-wrenching.”

Johnson spent the rest of the day piecing together information on what happened to her parents.

“They’re just in shock. You look at them and feel their pain,” Johnson said. “They’re losing their neighbors and their friends.”

The Thompsons’ cabin, a Volkswagen, a shop and a new John Deere tractor were destroyed by the slide. Many of their close friends remain missing.

“We’re still waiting to get out of this nightmare, but we’re awake,” Ron Thompson said. “This touched me. It hurts because of what it’s done to our neighbors.”

Because the couple was left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, Johnson is busy replacing necessities. She’s found her parents some comforts of home, including a coffee pot similar to the one they had and a soup cooker.

“My parents have been givers their whole life,” Johnson said. “They’ve never asked anyone for anything.”

The couple and Jira are staying with Johnson in Arlington until they figure out their living situation. On Monday, they found out their homeowner insurance will not cover the losses.

Friends have set up a GoFundMe page to help the Thompsons rebuild.

“I can’t see a foot in front of me but I know we gotta keep going,” Johnson said.

Gail Thompson, 62, is starting the healing process by again journaling with her red pens.

Ron Thompson is known for carving wooden plaques for his family and neighbors. Now, he has the last one he crafted before the disaster hanging in Johnson’s house. It reads: “We will overcome.”

“I’m going to make it,” Ron Thompson said. “But there’s people who lost their families and loved ones. We need to help them.”

As the number of casualties continues to rise, the reality of the loss is sinking in. It is minute by minute. The Thompsons take solace in being with neighbors.

“I’m getting blisters from getting so many hugs. I hope they turn into calluses,” Ron Thompson said. “Love is the bottom line. That’s what’s going to keep us strong.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.

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