Searchers never lost hope that Kris Regelbrugge would be found

OSO — They seemed close, tauntingly so.

Clues to Kristine “Kris” Regelbrugge’s whereabouts had been found in several forms: her driver licenses, her wallet, remnants of the family’s chicken coop and letters she’d written to her Navy commander husband when he was deployed overseas.

All had been recovered from the massive debris field left behind by the March 22 Oso mudslide.

Her presence seemed everywhere, yet the cheerful wife and mother of five grown children was nowhere to be found.

To sense she was so near, only to have the trail vanish, “that’s what was so disheartening,” Dayn Brunner said Wednesday.

The Darrington man knew firsthand about heartbreak. He lost his sister in the slide. Summer Raffo, 36, was driving on Highway 530 to a job shoeing horses when the slide swallowed her blue Subaru. She was found March 26.

Finding Regelbrugge — the last of 43 people taken by the slide that soggy Saturday morning in the Stillaguamish River valley — was not just important for the family. It was something the community needed, as well, Brunner said.

“I’m seeing a lot of people suffering from PTSD-like (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms,” Brunner said. “I wholeheartedly feel that having her out is going to help with a lot of that.”

On Tuesday morning, four months after the Steelhead Haven neighborhood was devoured, Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue crews found a body they were convinced was Regelbrugge. New clues led searchers to the rubble of Regelbrugge’s garage, buried about 18 feet underground. It was much deeper than searchers expected it could be.

On Wednesday morning, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner confirmed the body was Regelbrugge, 44. Her husband, Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III, 49, was found by two brothers and two sons in March.

The couple were at their home on Steelhead Drive when the slide hit. Their family couldn’t be reached Wednesday.

Even after the formal search was disbanded April 28, Brunner said he never lost hope that the final two missing people — Regelbrugge and Steven Hadaway of Darrington — would be found.

Sheriff’s office search and rescue workers quietly returned multiple times to look for them. They would call several local volunteers, including Brunner, who last scoured the dirt about two weeks ago. Hadaway was found May 22.

Brunner knew all of the 43 victims by name. Most he knew well enough for handshakes and hugs. Kris Regelbrugge fit into that category.

He often worked alongside search and rescue sheriff’s deputy Glen Bergstrom, whose home is not far from the slide. Brunner sensed the deputy’s determination. It meant a lot to the volunteers to see him there.

“I knew we weren’t ever going to give up,” he said. “I knew we were going to find her one way or another. It wasn’t a matter of if but when.”

Brunner’s mother, Rae Smith, had promised Regelbrugge’s children that the search would not end until their mother was found.

“We had to bring everyone home,” she said. “Nobody could be left behind.”

Locals had backup plans if the sheriff’s search and rescue ever stopped looking. First, they would have a fundraiser to give money to the largely volunteer operation to continue. If that didn’t work, they planned to go in on their own with heavy equipment.

Smith thought highly of Kris Regelbrugge. It was Regelbrugge who worked with Smith’s son, Anthony, on his schoolwork to make sure he caught up and kept up.

“If it weren’t for Kris, he wouldn’t have graduated,” Smith said.

At commencement in June 2013, Anthony, beaming in his graduation gown, walked down the aisle with friend and classmate Sara Regelbrugge, Kris’ daughter. He handed Sara’s mother a flower, a symbol of his appreciation and acknowledgement of her kindness.

Rae Smith’s promise has been kept, but she knows there will be rekindled feelings of pain for the Regelbrugge family.

“It is always bittersweet,” she said. “I was so glad she was found and that chapter can be closed. But it opens up wounds. You just feel your heart bleeding again.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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