Rescue workers grateful for countless acts of kindness

OSO — Willy Harper still finds himself reading through the cards that fill rubber totes at the Oso Fire Station.

Donations for rescue workers are stacked along walls and shelves: water bottles, cookies, granola bars, paper towels.

The smell of lavender from boxes of donated soap follows the fire chief into his truck at night.

Harper and Assistant Fire Chief Toby Hyde have been searching for the right words and the right ways to thank everyone who sent donations and cards and shared thoughts and prayers after the March 22 mudslide.

Those countless acts of kindness came as rescuers spent weeks in the mud, eventually recovering all 43 victims.

People around the world found personal connections to what was happening in the tiny community of Oso, Harper said.

“There are these bright spots in terrible times,” he said.

During recovery efforts, the provisions helped the crews keep going, Harper said.

Searchers would return from the wet and cold to homemade meals.

Volunteers just showed up at the fire station and cooked and cleaned. Crews used the duct tape to keep the mud out of their boots. They used the plywood to create walkways over the muck.

People brought whatever they could.

One woman gave 100 fast-food hamburgers, Harper said.

“She could barely talk. She was crying so much,” he said.

Companies gave too, local and corporate: Oil. Chain saws. Tools.

The support from the community continues to be important as folks in Oso work together to get survivors back on their feet, Hyde said.

He’s been moved by how many people have approached him after seeing his Oso fire department shirt and hat. He recently was invited to accept a contribution at a Sikh celebration in Renton.

The Sikhs thanked him for his work. They wanted to be a part of it.

“That’s just so far out of our little community that it just goes to show that this event is bigger than we are and the support that we have had has been monumental,” Hyde said. “We don’t know how to thank people for that. It’s been a real humbling experience to see this outpouring of support.”

One way the crews want to express their gratitude is by being good stewards of the relief money and helping with long-term recovery, Hyde said.

The Darrington and Oso fire districts sent pallets of shovels, bottled water and socks to wildfire crews and victims in Eastern Washington. They’re still providing water to two Oso families whose wells were damaged by the slide.

“Words can’t express the appreciation of everybody’s help,” said Joel Johnson, a chaplain who’s been working at the fire station full time.

And after the weeks of sadness and exhaustion, the crews can share laughs, too, in some of the moments of absurdity from those first few weeks.

It’s little things, all springing from good intentions, the chief said.

People brought what they could, because they wanted to help.

One man brought the firefighters a bag of half-eaten groceries, including the remnants of a rotisserie chicken.

People brought the entire contents of their pantries and medicine cabinets.

One kid sent them a card for all the animals of Oso. Sometimes it’s too difficult to read the cards, Harper said, because they bring back memories of the debris field.

One day, a woman drove two hours to the fire station.

She wanted Harper to take her 7-month-old German shorthaired pointer. She thought the puppy could join the search dogs digging in the mud.

“Her heart was in the right place,” Johnson said.

“I almost took it, it was so cute,” Harper said.

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

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