By Eric Stevick, Rikki King and Scott North, Herald Writers
The month had been ridiculously wet. A real frog-choker, as they say around the Oso fire hall. By March 22, the sky already had dumped 17 inches on Circle B Ranch where Willy Harper works keeping things running.
For a few days, folks about town saw water spewing from the bulkhead holding back Skaglund Hill, a place notorious for mudslides across Highway 530.
Harper, 37, Oso’s volunteer fire chief, got the call around 10:45 a.m. Mud had blanketed a stretch of the rural highway. It came as no surprise on a slow, soggy Saturday in the quiet river valley.
Harper has lived in Oso1 for 30 years. He’s seen plenty of little slides, so he threw a few orange traffic cones into his Suburban, drove past the empty fire hall and headed four miles east.
Up the valley, in Darrington, phones started ringing.
People who had left town earlier that morning called their friends: Can you check on my house? My dog? My drive home?
Shovels were loaded into pickup trucks before they rolled west.2 They figured there’d be some digging.
In the valley, those out on their morning strolls sensed something was off.
The North Fork Stillaguamish River shrank to a trickle. Fish flopped in puddles. Sirens wailed from east and west as emergency vehicles converged toward a riverside neighborhood aptly named Steelhead Haven.
On the Oso side, a run-down house with a blue tarp on its roof squatted in the middle of the highway.3 The valley’s north side was carved into a series of giant earth steps. What lay beyond was obscured by a stand of alder, but way out in the distance, a new range of gray hills slumped over the valley. The few trees that still stood there canted in crazy directions, as though a rug had been ripped from beneath their roots.
From the Darrington side, the light was all wrong. Where old trees once touched over the highway to make a tunnel of shadow, there was now just open sky. Eyes were drawn to a raw scar on the hillside to the northwest.
At 10:37 a.m., a hill that had stood since the Ice Age awoke from an eon’s slumber with a terrifying roar. A churning wave of mud, trees and clay tumbling in its face raced a mile across the valley.
Steelhead Haven was gone.
Instead, there were pinnacles of mud the size of fire trucks, and loaves of sand and silt three stories high.
Those first to lay eyes on the worst disaster in Snohomish County history couldn’t comprehend what they were seeing. Fate — perhaps a red light in town or a cup of coffee for the road — had spared them.
Screams for help shook them from their stupor.
They knew what they had to do.
Nothing — not hip-deep mud, not quicksand, not risky footing, not leaking propane and gas, not downed power lines, not orders to stay out — would hold them back.
When the mountain fell, the people rose up.
Any other time, Isaac Hall and Quinn Nations would have been easy pickings for a traffic ticket.
Hall, 26, and Nations, 33, each gripped a steering wheel.
Hall, a heavy equipment mechanic, was in front in his 1979 Ford F600 farm truck. Nations followed in the same model, one year older, connected by a tow bar. It had deflated tires, a dead engine and no brakes or brake lights. The faded blue rust bucket did have enough good parts for Hall to enlist his old logging buddy’s help in lugging the heap across the valley.
Trooper Rocky Oliphant, his cruiser’s lights flashing and siren screaming, whizzed past the startled pair on Highway 530.
A knot of idled cars forced the Darrington men to pull over. They hoofed it over the hill to check out the ruckus. The highway was buried, and familiar faces were surveying a mud-coated tangle of ravaged homes.
Fellow logger Sean Wright, 26, was there. He’d gone into town to get a prescription filled and was still pale from several days of the flu. He had his blood up.
He and others could see that something terrible had happened. They wanted to help look for survivors but were being ordered to stay out.
Three other men were already defying the law.
Kody Wesson, 23, was a good 50 feet into the morass. Right behind him was his brother-in-law, Chris Ditgen. The pair had driven into town that morning to be fitted for wedding tuxedos. A second stop to buy guitar strings likely saved their lives.
Ahead of them, in the mud, was Kris Langton.4 The 31-year-old carpenter and Sunday school teacher with long frizzy hair often wore kilts, but somehow fit in just fine in secluded Darrington.
Langton told Oliphant that he’d have to shoot him to keep him out. His wife and four children were in a house on the far side of the slide.
He kept going. About a hundred yards in, Langton found a mother and baby wrapped in the branches of a tree. Wesson relayed the news to those standing beyond the slide.
Growing impatient, Hall, Nations and Wright waded into the mud. The trooper, concerned for their safety on the unstable ground, among downed power lines, threatened to arrest them, but he wasn’t able to stop them.
Fire chief Harper radioed for help. When he heard that a mother and baby were in the mud, he headed in.
Each step the men took was fraught with uncertainty, often ending belt high in muddy batter that sapped energy, swallowed shoes and threatened to suck them under.
Amanda Skorjanc5, 25, was pinned within pieces of a couch, unable to wriggle out from beneath a bushy evergreen with thick, low-hanging branches. She’d been carried 700 feet from where her house once stood. All the while, she clutched her son, Duke Suddarth, praying for God to spare them.
When Wesson arrived, he told her he, too, had a baby boy.
“I will make sure he is safe,” promised Wesson, a choker setter whose job keeps him running up and down hills wrapping heavy cables around logs. He started back, gently cradling Duke, keeping him warm, trying not to step into a sinkhole.
Time grew short. Duke’s tiny limp body, just five months from the womb, had turned blue. His breaths drew shallow.
Wesson rubbed Duke’s legs and picked his way to safety as fast as he could. When he got stuck, he’d hand Duke over to one of the men who followed, taking the baby back when he freed himself.
Duke stopped breathing.
On solid ground, Wesson gave Duke to Steve Jahn Jr., one of Oso’s dozen volunteer firefighters. Jahn, 29, had earned his Emergency Medical Technician credentials a few months earlier.
He began chest compressions. Duke let out a cry.
The men’s eyes met: One precious life had been saved.
There was no time to savor the moment. Duke’s mother — her broken bones obvious — needed immediate help.
It was anyone’s guess how many others might still be out there.
When Frank and Rhonda Cook saw Rockport medics rolling by, they knew something was wrong along Highway 530.
The Darrington couple, who’d volunteered with the town’s fire department and Snohomish County Search and Rescue, understood the significance of seeing their Skagit County neighbors zipping through town.
Rhonda told her boss at the bakery: “I need to go.”
She hasn’t been back to that job yet.
When they reached the slide’s eastern edge, on the Darrington side, the Cooks could see a scramble of locals and firefighters amid the rubble.
Among them were Marc and Julie Ford, who’d gone to check on their friends’ dog and ended up helping Gary “Mac” McPherson. The retired scientist was buried in mud, trapped beneath a collapsed roof.
Darrington firefighters and family friends dug him out while power lines swayed nearby and the river began to rise.
Julie Ford held McPherson’s hand, trying to comfort him as he cried for his wife.
Linda McPherson6, the town’s beloved retired librarian, was dead. Neighbors Don and Elaine Young pulled blankets from their own bed to cover her.
Cook started getting texts from Rae Smith, whose daughter Summer Raffo7 was missing. Summer was driving on the highway to a job — she shoed horses — when the hill fell. She never showed up.
As the hours passed with no word, Summer’s mom urged Cook to do everything she could.
“Please help bring her home, Rhonda,” she wrote. “I’m dying.”
Snohomish County’s Helicopter Rescue Team8 gathered for a 10 a.m. training flight at Taylor’s Landing, near Snohomish. First, though, everybody would practice a rescue hoist, as always.
Ernie Zeller wasn’t on the schedule, but a spot had opened up.
Six men and one woman were aboard SnoHawk10. The engine hadn’t warmed up, but the team was running through the pilot’s checklist.
Deputy Glen Bergstrom brought news.
There was a mudslide. People were on top of their houses, screaming. “That’s all I heard,” said Zeller, 45.
The trainees hopped out. The flight to Oso took 20 minutes.
First, they rescued Robin Youngblood and Jetty Dooper, who were standing on a roof.
Next, they headed toward Skorjanc, trapped from her knees down in a pocket of branches, two-by-fours, couch and ceiling into which she’d been thrust. Her broken bones hung at odd angles.
A half dozen rescuers encircled her as Zeller was lowered to the ground. Nations worked with a borrowed chainsaw to cut her out.
Across the mud, mechanic Hall and Wright, fighting the flu, used plywood, siding and whatever else they could grab to build a bridge. They headed east, atop pieces of tin roof, toward a man waving a stick about a quarter-mile away.
Hall was first.
Rounding a heap of debris, he didn’t expect to find a young boy just standing there.
Jacob Spillers, 4, was shivering next to a tower of clay the size of a small house. He cried for his mom. Hall, tired and shoeless, pushed through the mud to reach the boy.
“I told him that he was all right and I’d do everything to help him,” Hall said.
He has a son the same age.
He wrapped his arms around the boy.
He told him he loved him.
Wright caught up. The boy was standing on his own two feet. Pretty tough kid, he thought. Now just to get him out.
They waved SnoHawk10 over. It dropped down, hovering next to a clay spire. Crew chief Randy Fay stepped onto the skid, then into the mud. He threw a rope to Hall to use to haul himself and the boy up to Fay.
The rotor wash pressed down. Hall struggled. Wright pushed his friend from behind, and together they reached help. Fay pulled Jacob into his arms, passed him into the helicopter, then signaled for Hall to climb inside.
They were evacuating the debris field. Hall and Jacob were carried off into the sky.
After dropping them off on the Oso side, SnoHawk10 headed back to Skorjanc. By then, she’d been cut free.
She was pulled into the air on a litter. Amid the commotion, firefighters relayed to Zeller that the baby had survived. The helicopter landed on the road, and crews moved Skorjanc into a waiting ambulance. Zeller told her that Duke was OK.
Only after Skorjanc was flying to safety did Nations make his way back toward Highway 530.
A few feet from the edge, the mud swallowed his remaining shoe. Then he stepped on a nail.
Trooper Oliphant was waiting for him. Instead of reaching for his cuffs, the patrolman shook his hand.
On the ground, little Jacob gravitated toward the stranger who had come for him, settling into Hall’s muddy lap until an ambulance took the boy to Cascade Valley.
In the emergency room, medical assistant Lorraine Nations, 55, didn’t know her son Quinn and his friends were among the rescuers.
When Jacob arrived, she cleaned him up, got him dressed and told him to call her “Oma,” German for grandmother. She set him on her lap and read him a book. That’s how Jonielle Spillers, Jacob’s mother, found them later that day.
Back in the mire, Wright soldiered on. After helping rescue Jacob, he dragged himself to where he could take cover from the hammering of the rotor blades.
He laid in the mud, exhausted, thinking about the man still off in the distance, still waving the two-by-four.
Wright pressed on. The man needed help extracting another victim. Together, they flagged down a helicopter and loaded the severely injured young man into a helicopter basket. Later, Wright learned that Adam Farnes, 23, didn’t make it.
The helicopter flew Wright and the other man to a dry patch of land on the Darrington side. A sliver of guilt nagged at him.
“It just felt like I needed to run back out there,” he said.
News spread. Hundreds were mobilizing to a disaster that already was being compared to the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980.9
Dozens of agencies drove to Oso and Darrington. An MH-60S Knighthawk search and rescue helicopter arrived from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Unlike Jacob’s, few rescues were straightforward. To free one survivor, crews cut through more than a dozen feet of debris, including a roof, two mattresses and a box spring. Then they had to move a sink.
Debris shifted dangerously around them the whole time. A refrigerator was all that held up a wall. Logs snapped up as they were cut.
Hospital corpsman second class Brent McIntyre, 31, was the first Navy rescuer dropped into the mud.
He remembers trying to describe the scene on his radio. Two houses were smashed under one roof, along with a car and a boat. The mud was soupy, like thin oatmeal. They would step on drywall, and it would crumble. They leaped from debris pile to debris pile to avoid sinking.
The crew flew the first man they rescued to Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon, then returned to the base for fuel, tools and help.
That same morning, the Navy Region Northwest fire and Emergency Services crew happened to be on base, drilling, crawling through a smoky building.
It was the first time the Navy helicopter team brought civilian firefighters along on a mission.
They flew back to Oso. The first job they had was to find a crew member who’d stayed behind. The man had climbed a tree so they could see him.
Firefighter Ian Walton’s dad was a logger. He gave the others advice on cutting through the downed trees mixed in the debris. There were firs, hemlocks, cedars, alder. “Take a forest and just lay it on its side,” he said.
Many of those rescued had hypothermia.
“They were hurt. They knew they were hurt,” McIntyre said.
The crew covered them in wool blankets, T-shirts and fleece, whatever they had in the helicopter.
The last few survivors were wrapped in bedsheets the crews brought from the base. The rescuers wrote their vital signs in marker on the fabric.
One man’s vital signs were scrawled on his chest.
In the debris field, McIntyre met Langton, the kilt-wearing Sunday school teacher, and together they worked for hours.10
“I mean hands-on helping us dig,” McIntyre said. “That guy, I cannot thank him enough for his help.”
On SnoHawk10, Zeller remembers grabbing the hand of another survivor, Larry Gullikson, 81. He yelled for Gullikson to squeeze his finger.
It’s something he learned working rescues — using touch to make sure someone is OK.
Gullikson squeezed. He squeezed until they landed.
By 2 p.m., helicopter crews had pulled 14 people from the mud. Thirteen survived.
Rhonda Cook struggled through the slop and downed trees to reach a home with a wall busted open and eaves nearly touching the ground.
Cook grabbed the roof and levered herself through the opening, expecting to stand up inside. Instead, her boots punched through a crust of mud. Below the mud, the room was filled with water. She dangled half-submerged, unable to pull herself up without her husband’s help.
Everywhere, the mud was wet and cold. Anyone in its frigid grasp would be fighting hypothermia, their body heat draining like the charge from a battery. They needed to be found, fast.
But where to start?
It looked like everything was gone but a few spruce.
Mount Higgins was still where it belonged. So north was that direction, she reasoned.
Little else made sense. There was a huge gash on the hillside above Steelhead Haven, a mile distant. Could it have sent mud this far?
Firefighters struggled with the same question. On both the Darrington and Oso sides, they could hear shouts for help. They radioed back and forth. It took awhile to realize they weren’t hearing the same people, that the slide had separated them too far for screams to carry.11
Cellphone service, always iffy in the valley, was working in spots on the Darrington side. Facebook feeds filled up with images from Oso. Word filtered in from the helicopter pilots. The river was blocked. Water was backing up.
By mid-afternoon, the would-be rescuers were being ordered out.
Over by the McPhersons’ place, Marc Ford could hear gunshots.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Anyone who knew the woods got the message. A distress signal.
Ford spotted Terry Haldeman12, a Snohomish County sheriff’s detective who lives outside Darrington. The lawman had set up the disaster’s first command post — his pickup truck — at the edge of the destruction. Haldeman was juggling radios and his cellphone, calling in what he knew and ordering reinforcements.
Ford needed to speak with this guy. He stood in front of him, waiting for an opening.
Finally, the detective looked his way.
Ford told him about the gunshots. He was convinced people were still out in the mud. He wanted to help, but firefighters who’d shown up had told him it was too dangerous. He wasn’t going to turn his back on people in need.
Haldeman nodded. Do what you can, he told him. Be careful. Don’t make us come rescue you. And, he said, if anyone told Ford to clear out, just send them his way.
At one point, a crew member was lowered to the ground from SnoHawk10 and left alone in the mud. He listened, and heard no cries for help.13
As twilight approached, volunteer firefighters on the Oso side focused on helping people reach higher ground. If the river gnawed through the debris all at once, a flash flood could race down the valley toward Arlington.
Folks went door-to-door, spreading the word. Neighbors helped neighbors. Sheep were pushed into the backseats of cars. People who’d never driven a tractor hopped behind the wheel and eased out the clutch.
Evacuation warnings scrolled across TV screens.
Few people slept that night.
Sunday dawned bright and clear.
Nations headed out early. “I thought there would be 500 boots on the ground,” he said.
Instead, the debris field was empty of searchers.
The Cooks were out the door before the sun was up. Neither slept.
Rhonda Cook worried about her friend, Summer Raffo, who everyone feared was buried in her car.
Their friendship had been born during a blizzard. Cook needed help with a colicky horse. As the snow piled up, all the vets said they couldn’t come. Rae Smith, Summer’s mom, knew horses. She agreed to help, so long as Cook did the driving.
The horse lived and the women’s friendship blossomed. Cook found kindred spirits in Summer and her mom. They not only loved their animals, they lived to help others. If something needed fixing, they didn’t wait for permission.
The Cooks rolled up to the slide that Sunday expecting to pitch in on a full-scale rescue operation.
Where was the command post? Why weren’t any searchers out in the mud? What was the plan?
No one was there to answer their questions.
They got angry, and busy. They drove up the old access road that ran under the power lines along the south side of the valley. Somebody already had cut the lock on the gate that blocked the road.
When they reached an overlook on the southern rim, they saw, for the first time, the enormity of the damage.
The disaster had two faces. On the Oso side, there were piles of dirt and debris. Near Darrington, there was a flood of mud, and the river was rising.
Folks were stirring below, none of them part of any official response. They poked around the edges of the slide, riding their quads overland to skirt roadblocks.
They could see Don and Elaine Young packing their belongings to save what they could from the advancing flood. The Cooks went down to help.
Elaine didn’t know what to pack. Rhonda told her: birth certificates, paperwork, clothes.
The Youngs’ neighbors, the Kuntz family, had been at a high school baseball game when the mud hit. Their house was gone. Before the slide, Coby Young, 20, was working on 15-year-old Quinton Kuntz’s motorcycle. He put the bike in a boat and tied it off the garage so it would float, so at least the flood wouldn’t get his friend’s motorcycle.
The Cooks, meanwhile, returned to the mud. They came across a 40-foot pile of debris. Perched on top was a pickup truck. They knew it wasn’t Summer, who didn’t drive a truck. They clambered up. Nobody was inside.
On the way down, Rhonda Cook spotted what she took to be a piece of plastic. She wiped the mud away. It was part of another truck.
They began to dig, unearthing a Chevrolet Suburban, crushed to the size of a Smart car. The cabin was packed with mud. Nobody was inside.
Summer, Rhonda thought. Where was Summer? She’d promised to find her.
The Cooks found bodies. They did what they could, marking the locations before moving on.
As the afternoon passed, they joined a large group helping the Kuntz family trying to salvage possessions from their home, which was in pieces 100 yards from the foundation.
A whimper came from somewhere inside.
Everyone began working to reach that sound. They cut through walls, doors, carpet.
Buddy, the family’s chocolate Labrador, crawled out, shaken and scared.
“If we are finding a dog in the debris, why not humans?” Rhonda wondered.
Where is Summer?
Another day was gone.
Officially, it was still a rescue operation. But in their hearts, people who’d been at the slide, on the ground or in the air, knew otherwise.
Nations was fuming.
This is a town of doers — and not nearly enough was being done. It was Monday, and he and others were sick of hearing about “protocol.”
They had heard the screams on Saturday. It had been silent on Sunday, but that didn’t mean a miracle couldn’t happen.
They knew what needed to be done. The forest had been knocked on its side. People in this valley knew all about their forest. Others were in the way, most of them strangers in uniforms from Down Below.
Trouble was brewing.
Three firefighters were put in charge on the east side those first few days: Arlington Deputy Fire Chief Tom Cooper, Lynnwood Assistant Fire Chief Gregg Sieloff14 and Marysville Fire Battalion Chief Scott Goodale.15
Nations knew that people like him — sawyers, loggers, road builders — could make a difference.
He took photos of the debris field with his smartphone.
In one photo, it looked like firefighters were standing around. Another photo showed locals digging.
Nations gave the images to his father-in-law, Kevin Ashe, who sits on the Darrington town council, and told him: Chew some ass.
Darrington is known for plainspoken people, and Ashe wasn’t going for gracious. He showed the photos to those in charge and demanded: Fix this.
Sieloff listened. Nations took him to where the locals were digging. They were using a logging road to reach the southeast end of the slide, working with chainsaws, axes and poles in mud up to their chests.
Dayn Brunner16, a Tulalip police officer from Darrington, was looking for his sister, Summer. He showed firefighters where houses had been. He knew who lived in them. The firefighters needed a road and maps, heavy equipment and people who knew how to work it.
Something clicked. That’s where locals knew they’d find their loved ones.
“It did not seem like a practical place to look for survivors,” Sieloff said. Everybody knew the odds.
It was time for action.
“We’ve got to do something now,” Sieloff thought. “We can’t wait. If people want to volunteer, they can just show up and we can put them to work.”
Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin’s17 trackhoe was out on the mud that afternoon. The hardest work started.
Tuesday morning found Cook sitting in the cab of her father’s truck while he hauled an excavator on a low-boy trailer down the Darrington side of Highway 530.
He didn’t slow as he neared the State Patrol roadblock. He wasn’t taking a chance on somebody changing their mind about letting them in.
Washington Task Force 1 arrived at 4 a.m. The elite disaster-response team set up a few tents in what would soon become a mini-city. At its first briefing, the task force of police and firefighters from Pierce County was told they’d be working with volunteers.
Searching side by side with victims’ friends and families threw protocol out the window. It was extraordinary.
They’d heard about Nations and other strong-willed locals who insisted on being involved. Some team members were apprehensive. But the locals knew where bodies had been found, where houses once stood.
They turned out to be the best resource the task force had.
That morning, machines were lined up on the east side of the slide, ready to go. On the Darrington side alone, 90 people, mostly from the valley, showed up with their tools.
Snohomish County’s rescue experts were trying something new, as well. Each one was assigned five volunteers, with preference given to locals and the families of the missing.
Strangers became friends.
The Youngs improvised a taxi service18, driving rescuers on their two quads to the debris field via a shortcut across their land. They figured giving someone a ride gave them more time to work. They carried fuel, search dogs, water, lumber. Each quad put on 300 miles.
Elaine Young remembers thinking, “We’re in Washington, and we don’t even have coffee.” She brewed a pot using bottled water and power from a generator on the back of a truck.
“We all had tiny little cups this big,” she said, measuring about two inches between her thumb and forefinger, “but it was awful good.”
How stable was the hill? Was it ready to fall on the people now looking for the missing?
Finding out was Toby Hyde’s job.
The assistant Oso fire chief was assigned to help geologists19 watch for another slide. The “soil squeezers,” as he’d call them, needed to record the relative positions of the trees. By tracking them, geologists hoped to get early warning if the earth was starting to move.
Hyde and the others scaled the hill, the one that had just fallen.
After anchoring themselves with climbing ropes, they inched out to the edge of the scarp. Whole trees, their roots snapped, leaned like deadfall traps waiting to spring.
They picked their way through to standing trees, wrapping the trunks with foil so people monitoring from below could tell whether the earth was shifting.
Hyde was stunned when he looked to the valley, 600 feet below. Steelhead Haven had been erased. The volunteer firefighters had been there many times, including happy visits each holiday season. One of them would dress as Santa and they’d roll their rigs through the neighborhood, chirping the sirens, calling neighbors and their kids to come outside. They’d gather donations for the food bank and hand out candy canes.
And they’d scout out potential volunteers. One who seemed interested was Billy Spillers, Jacob’s dad. The slide took Spillers and three of his children.
People arrived at the little station house in Oso, wanting to help. It seemed they came from all over.
It was overwhelming, said Harper, the volunteer chief, “like being inside a beehive with somebody giving it a hard shake and a jet engine running outside.”
Professional firefighters from elsewhere showed up on their days off and handled the department’s other calls.
A woman planted flowers out front. Ordinary folk washed the rigs, cleaned toilets, repaired a shed.
Mostly, though, the volunteers wanted to get out and dig.20
Names were put on a roster. As in Darrington, priority was given to locals and the families of the missing. A lottery decided the rest. Volunteers hung around for days, making themselves useful, waiting to get the nod.
Out on the slide, it was hard work on hallowed ground.
Conditions were cold, wet, miserable.
The mud clogged tools. It sucked off gloves and boots21 and ripped pant legs.
In places it gave way like quicksand. Other areas were under water, choked with barbed wire and blackberry bushes22 , almost the same.
All day, searchers from Washington Task Force 1 would look forward to mealtime, but not just for the food. That’s when they got to wash their hands in scalding, soapy water.
For a few moments, their hands — and maybe only their hands — were warm and clean.
In the mud, they found family albums, Christmas ornaments, lawn sprinklers: people’s lives, now in pieces.
Everything was cataloged and sealed in police evidence bags.
There were guns and bullets, necklaces and bracelets and rings, purses and wallets. In one, they found $13.
The debris held clues.
Haldeman, the sheriff’s deputy who used his pickup as a command post, was named Detective of the Year in 2011. He took vacation time to stay at the slide, running an excavator. He dug an Everett police vest up from the mud. It belonged to retired officer Michael W. Pearson, 74.
Searchers also used debris flow analysis, a series of trajectory lines that predicted where remains would be found. The technology proved remarkably accurate.
At first, folks were skeptical.
Then they started seeing results. Neighbors’ remains were found close together, carried hundreds of yards.
Nations became such a believer that he insisted an area be searched and searched again. Washington Task Force 1 had been through there more than once.
But Nations had a gut feeling. And it made sense to trust him, said Todd Magliocca, a Tacoma fire captain and task force division supervisor.
Nations was right. They brought another person home.
Ken Wesson, whose son Kody had helped save baby Duke that first day, joined a crew looking for remains. Those who work the woods with the fourth-generation logger say he can pick the hard hat from your head with a 65,000-pound loader and never even ruffle your hair.
He gently reminded those in the mud why they were there.
Whenever somebody was found, he told them: “We are helping a family. That’s closure right there.”
Cook became a key link between the search strategists and the earth movers. Well-organized and fearless, she could cut red tape, wheedle donations of hydraulic fluid, and track down replacement parts at a moment’s notice.
She was on a mission. She’d promised Rae Smith she would find Summer.
Her friend’s car was unearthed on the fifth day. Cook was summoned. She called Dayn Brunner, Summer’s brother. In a tender family reunion, Summer’s brothers lifted her body from the wreckage and carried her out of the hushed valley.
Smith was grateful. She also told Cook her work was not done, making her promise to do everything she could to bring back everyone.
That same day, Natasha Huestis learned that her baby daughter’s body had been found. Her mother, Christina Jefferds,23 had been found Sunday, among the first bodies recovered. Jefferds, a doting grandmother and the wife of an Oso Fire Department captain, was with 4-month-old Sanoah the morning of the slide. Sanoah’s name is Hawaiian for “mist in the mountains.”24
Huestis, 26, ran down the hill in her purple rubber boots. She dodged a security guard who tried to stop her, erroneously assuming she wasn’t allowed in.
She raced out to Sanoah. She carried her baby back, thankful to all those who had worked to find her.
“I walked out of there, never so proud, with my shoulders back and long strides,” she said.
Crews kept searching until April 28. They found 15 more people, ending with 41 victims accounted for.
Sheriff’s search and rescue Sgt. Danny Wikstrom25 had a hunch. Last week, he returned to an area in the debris field where searchers predicted remains would be found, but hadn’t.
Working alone, he found Steven Hadaway, 53, a father who served in the Marine Corps and moved to Darrington in part because he felt most at home in small towns. He was installing a TV satellite dish at the home of Amanda Lennick, a new arrival to Steelhead Haven, when the slide carried him away.
Molly Kristine “Kris” Regelbrugge, 44, is the last victim missing. She was the wife of John Regelbrugge III, an active duty Navy commander who served 32 years. The couple died together. His body was found.
Many of those who first raced into the pile spent a month looking for victims. At 3 Rivers Cutting, a logging and trucking company west of Darrington, a group of seven recently gathered to reflect.
They don’t volunteer information about the victims, other than to say it’s a certainty that those who were plucked from the mud immediately after the hill fell were the only folks who had a chance at survival. Everyone else died from blunt-force trauma.
People worked so hard to bring everyone home that stopping has its own torment. They pray that the earth will yet give up the missing.
Sometimes the only way to fight the darkness is to laugh until you cry.26 Don’t get Nations going about the search dogs.
“There’s something I want to get off my chest right now,” he said. “Them dogs ain’t worth a (expletive) for nothing.”
The dogs can’t smell under water. They can’t sniff through mud. And the slide swallowed refrigerators and freezers when it obliterated homes. He and others got tired of stopping their own work because a dog found somebody’s pot roast or leftover lasagna.
Logger Ken Wesson knew people were watching, in the valley, and around the world. Most of all, he knew people doing the work needed to believe.
They raised flags as they labored, out of respect for the dead and their families, and to inspire each other.
Wesson’s first flag-raising came near a shift change the first week. His brother, Roger Wesson, was running the machine. Roger asked their other brother, Alby Wesson, if he had his tree-climbing gear.
We are going to raise a flag in that tree, Roger said.
So Alby put on his spikes and climbed a cedar that still stood despite being mauled by the slide. He limbed and topped it, running up a cable to create a spar pole. Someone else grabbed what they called the “rubble” flag. The banner, pulled in tatters from the mud, still had all its stars and stripes.
Word spread. Machine operators powered down. Workers stopped to watch. A question was asked: Should the crew wait for somebody important to come say a few words? Hell no, came the answer.
“We’re not waiting for the governor,” Wesson said. “We’re not waiting for the president. We’re not waiting for anybody. This is for the people who are under the ground that we are looking for, and this is for the people on top of the ground right here, right now.”
The banner rose to the top of the pole, then lowered to half staff.
Alby Wesson began to shout the Lord’s Prayer.
“Our Father, who art in heaven …”
Others joined in, one by one. Loggers, firefighters, National Guard troops, federal disaster experts, standing together.
Oso followed people home.
In Tacoma earlier this month, Washington Task Force 1 worked to get organized again. Things came back from the slide in a jumble.
They can’t get the mud out of their gear.
“I got Oso mud on my hat still,” said Micah Lundborg, a Pierce County sheriff’s sergeant and a task-force diver. “You just can’t spray it out. It just stays. You just always think about that.”
In Oak Harbor, the Navy rescue crew found a box of photographs a victim left behind in the helicopter. They got the box back to the family.
Rhonda Cook worked on the pile until the search was suspended. She skipped just one shift during those five weeks. It was the day she was at Summer’s memorial.
She hasn’t forgotten the promise she made to Summer’s mother.
“I promised her again I will do everything I can do to make sure everybody comes out. I haven’t been able to do the last one yet.”
Natasha Huestis goes to bed alone. Baby Sanoah is not there to cuddle at night. Huestis sleeps with her daughter’s blanket, holding a teddy bear in the crook of her arm. She yearns for better days.
The valley is calm again. Birds sing. Toby Hyde, the assistant Oso fire chief who brought the geologists up the hill, wonders if the worst is yet to come. It’s starting to sink in, the magnitude of what happened, of who was lost, of the pain radiating out from this valley. There will be lawyers, politics, blame. He hopes people don’t lose sight of how they came together when it mattered most.
For three days, the Youngs didn’t tell anyone the river had flooded the lower floor of their home.
It wasn’t the priority, Elaine Young said. Her family lost so much less than their neighbors. “I have half a home that I can live in,” she said.
The familiar sound of log trucks grumbling by on the temporary road reassures her. “We’re finding a way.”