Carvings with words of tribute are displayed at the Oso Landslide Memorial on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Carvings with words of tribute are displayed at the Oso Landslide Memorial on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

New memorial means ‘everything’ to survivors, 10 years after Oso slide

At the 2-acre site, bronze and steel sculptures rise against the backdrop of the slide, making use of shadows and light — tragedy and hope.

OSO — When Jessica Pszonka stands at the Oso Landslide Memorial, she feels the presence of six family members who perished in 2014.

“Their final resting place was on that slide. That’s where they were taken from us,” she said in an interview last month. “It’s a very healing place. You just get this feeling over you.”

The permanent tribute, located off the renamed Oso Memorial Highway, will be dedicated Friday — as survivors and family gather to mark the 10th year since the tragedy. On the morning of March 22, 2014, the hill above the Steelhead Haven neighborhood collapsed, killing 43 people.

The 2-acre site, built for $4.5 million, takes visitors on a journey honoring the community, first responders, survivors and victims.

A Corten steel and bronze sculpture rises out of a stone plaza against the backdrop of the slide, making use of shadows and light, reflecting tragedy and hope.

At 10:37 a.m. on each March 22, the beacon’s shadow will fall on a rock that was here at the time of the catastrophe. It says: “Hope is seeing the light despite the darkness.”

Behind it is the path of the slide.

Flower beds flanking the panels and columns are dotted with saplings and leafy green sprouts. An open-walled lean-to gives information on the slide and some shelter from the elements. Large Corten steel panels with multicolored-resin show the lives of those lost with nature motifs, favorite pastimes and quotes.

Finding funding for a project of this scope took years. Many, like Pszonka’s parents, feared the permanent memorial would not come to fruition in their lifetime.

Starting Saturday, the memorial will be accessible from dawn to dusk.

“It’s gorgeous,” Pszonka said. “It just so represents everything that us as family members were wanting to see.”

‘The monument comes alive’

People finish working on the Oso Landslide Memorial on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

People finish working on the Oso Landslide Memorial on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

A wooden gateway, resting on small smooth cobbles, welcomes visitors.

Carved into the wood are the date and time of the landslide: “March 22, 2014 10:37.” Butterflies are painted on 43 cobbles, one for each life lost in the slide.

The gateway leads to a 3,500-square-foot plaza with a shelter and functioning fireplace. The square is located near the spot where families gather year after year to commemorate their loved ones.

“It’s just kind of a day to heal and help everyone get through the day,” Pszonka said.

After their annual dinner at the nearby Rhodes River Ranch comes Pszonka’s favorite part — the lantern release. Disney’s “Tangled,” a favorite movie for Pszonka and her sister Katie Ruthven, inspired a part of the yearly ceremony.

In the movie, Rapunzel is kidnapped. Each year, her parents release lanterns in the hope their light will guide her back to her loved ones. Katie Ruthven died in the slide at age 34.

“Every year since the first year, we have done it,” Jessica Pszonka said. “Every year, whether it’s been downpouring all day, or snowing or windy, we are able to get lanterns out. Like that — the rain will stop.”

In 2020 and 2023, the Timber Framers Guild, a Rhode Island-based organization, hosted two workshops where dozens of volunteers from across the country learned how to build two portals and the four timber shelters, then erected them on site.

Tsovinar Muradyan stands next to the 19-foot beacon she designed for the Oso Landslide Memorial. (Photo provided by Vaghinak Petrosyan)

Tsovinar Muradyan stands next to the 19-foot beacon she designed for the Oso Landslide Memorial. (Photo provided by Vaghinak Petrosyan)

Now, at the center of the community plaza stands a 19-foot bronze-and-steel beacon, one of the memorial sculptures created by Tsovinar Muradyan.

Muradyan, living in Washington in 2020, was busy building a memorial for her father who died in her home country of Armenia when she started working on the Oso memorial. She couldn’t travel home because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Her grief led to three pieces for Oso, focusing on themes of hope, community and resilience.

“I knew that I could do something important for them,” Muradyan said. “It’s very hard, but we have to keep these memories in your heart.”

Cut out of the beacon are silhouettes of 43 butterflies, matching those painted at the gate.

The three-pillar beacon rises out of a four-pointed star outlined on the ground. Visitors have to stand on the fourth star point to complete the sculpture.

“The idea,” she said, “is that the monument comes alive when a person just stands here on the missing part — with its memories, its prayers, its presence, the monument becomes complete.”

At 10:37 a.m., the exact time the slide occurred, light is supposed to hit the engraving on this boulder at the Oso Landslide Memorial. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

At 10:37 a.m., the exact time the slide occurred, light is supposed to hit the engraving on this boulder at the Oso Landslide Memorial. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

‘It’s just that human connection’

As you keep walking along the path, a series of panels explain how the slide happened and what came afterward.

One panel explains that after the disaster, the county created hazard maps and early warning systems to prevent deaths in future slides. Now the National Weather Service can issue landslide danger alerts.

Survivors of the slide, who might be upset by the information, can choose a less intense route.

Carol Ohlfs,a county landscape architect, said the alternate route was born out of conversations with other memorial designers, including those who designed tributes after the Columbine High School shooting and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“This might be a little traumatizing to put people through all of this information,” she said, “especially if you went through that, and now you’re just really trying to get to the memorial of your loved one.”

A tribute to first responders at the Oso Landslide Memorial on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

A tribute to first responders at the Oso Landslide Memorial on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Ahead, there’s the first responders’ rock, adorned with challenge coins for emergency personnel from 45 agencies.

At the center is the Oso memorial coin with the number 43 in front of a mountain. John Hadaway, whose brother Steve Hadaway died in the slide, gave Muradyan an Oso coin she keeps in her wallet. Four small bronze sculptures also sit on and next to the rock: a pair of duct-taped boots, a hardhat, an excavator bucket and a chainsaw.

The rock honors those who worked tirelessly to find those missing in the days after the slide.

One of them was Joel Johnson, then Oso fire chaplain.

In 2012, Johnson moved to Arlington Heights, where his wife Brianna grew up. They soon began working at Arlington Assembly church.

On March 14, 2014, the couple’s first child, Jaelyn, was born with an undetected heart defect. They stayed at Skagit Valley Hospital for a week.

On March 22, the couple had been home for just 36 hours when Johnson got a notification on his pager. Chaplains are dispatched or paged just like other first responders, Johnson said.

“The original dispatch mentioned a single-engine response and that the roof of a barn had slid onto the roadway,” he said.

He was the closest responder.

“Nobody else is available. I’ll be back in a couple hours,” he remembers telling Brianna. “I’m going to go help this family, maybe help them get connected to the Red Cross or something.”

As he drove, he listened to the radio traffic as the initial crews figured out this was something major.

On the first day, he assisted the Oso fire station with staging and family reunification. He “scribed” for the chief officer in charge of the station area, he said.

Every day after that, he would be on site, usually either at the fire station or the slide, from 5 or 6 a.m. to only leave at 11 p.m. or midnight. Go home, rest for a few hours — and come back for the next day.

At the fire station, responders would pull out the rigs each morning, then set up tables and chairs. That’s where they met with families and shared what they recovered, like a Bible from the Regelbrugge family.

“In mud, but we were able to wipe off everything and it was still very intact. It was their mom’s Bible, so I was able to give it to the boys and show that to them,” Johnson said. He also found a victim’s military shadow box filled with medals.

And every night, they would move the tables and chairs, then park their trucks back inside.

“There’s nothing you can say, but you just go up to somebody and put your arm around them and just be there for them. And what that does for people is just let you know that there’s somebody there for them. That somebody there that’s supporting them,” he said. “But, just, some people, that human connection, they want to know somebody is there.”

He repeated this routine every day until he got his first break 38 days later, when the operation was handed over to the sheriff’s office. He kept working with Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper in the aftermath, and later he became part of the memorial committee.

Joel Johnson, Oso fire chaplain and Darrington fire chief, poses for a photo at the Oso Fire Station on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Joel Johnson, Oso fire chaplain and Darrington fire chief, poses for a photo at the Oso Fire Station on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

He gradually shifted away from his chaplain duties to attend EMT school, becoming a full-time first responder himself. A couple years later, Darrington received a grant allowing Johnson to become a full-time training officer for the fire department. Last year, he became Darrington’s fire chief.

Johnson’s cited Psalm 119:116 as a daily prayer to keep his commitment as a first responder strong:

LORD, sustain me as you promised. … Do not let my hope be crushed.

Next to the responders’ rock is a Callery pear tree. The tree was grown from the seeds of the Survivor Tree, the only to remain in the ruins of the World Trade Center in 2001. The New York City parks department donated the tree in 2014, and now it is finally growing at the Oso memorial.

‘I’ll stay there forever’

One of the four timber-framed wooden shelters is a space for the 11 survivors.

Snohomish County Parks spokesperson Rose Intveld said the intent was to represent light and hope.

It’s “a reflection of how the survivors’ stories were a source of light and hope to the community and the responders during the long recovery process,” she wrote.

Four triangle panels made of epoxy resin will be installed in the shelter structure by May or June this year, Intveld said. Eleven swallows, cut out from the panels, will glow in the dark. Johnson said they are an important piece of the memorial.

“We want to remember those that survived it, those that experienced it firsthand, and had to basically be plucked out of the mud and that are still chugging along today,” he said. “They had that front row seat to just an unimaginable event.”

The community area includes photographs from the river, nearby homesteads, and people fly fishing, snowmobiling or holding family gatherings in backyards.

It’s a space to recognize that a community was lost as well as individual people, said Ohlfs, the landscape architect. Even those who miraculously survived lost everything, she said.

The next part of the memorial features 26 Corten steel panels, one for each family that experienced loss. Carved in the panels are motifs made of colored epoxy resin Muradyan personalized to represent each victim’s life.

Custom-made tributes, honoring each of the 26 families lost in the mudslide, are displayed at the Oso Landslide Memorial on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Custom-made tributes, honoring each of the 26 families lost in the mudslide, are displayed at the Oso Landslide Memorial on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

“When you walk there, surprisingly you can see that the panels work individually and also all together,” she said.

Muradyan asked each family what they would like her to include.

Pszonka ’s sister, Katie Ruthven, and brother-in-law, Shane Ruthven, 34, had a business called Mountain Lion Glass. Their panel has a mountain lion to represent Shane, beside three butterflies for Katie Ruthven and their children Hunter, 6, and Wyatt, 4. Katie Ruthven’s butterfly is purple because she graduated from the University of Washington. A red hibiscus, red lilies and plumeria tree flowers represent Shane’s mom, Judee. An eagle soars above, for Shane’s stepfather Lewis Vandenburg, a Marine who also died that day.

A photo of the family is also engraved.

Seth Jefferds’ wife, Christina, and their 4-month-old granddaughter Sanoah Huestis died in the slide. Ten years later, he still lives 4 miles away.

The Jefferds family panel has sunflowers and Winnie the Pooh and Piglet walking away, with a quote from the book that says: “If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart. I’ll stay there forever.”

A custom-made tribute to Christina Jefferds and Sanoah Huestis, who both died in the mudslide, at the Oso Landslide Memorial on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

A custom-made tribute to Christina Jefferds and Sanoah Huestis, who both died in the mudslide, at the Oso Landslide Memorial on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, near Oso, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

“It is nice,” Seth Jefferds said. “But it doesn’t bring them back.”

Ohlfs said the memorial could evolve over the years.

“Some people might not be interested and able to participate, but maybe in the future they might want to participate,” she said. “Leaving space, that’s one of the things we considered.”

Leaving is what Jessica Pszonka and part of her family will do, after the 10th anniversary. They sold their houses and will move to Tyler, Texas, about 100 miles east of Dallas.

“My parents have a hard time, they have not been able to basically move on with their lives, there’s just constant triggers here,” she said. “With that memorial being complete, I felt my job here is done, and we can move on.”

Every year, on March 22, they will be back.

To donate to the memorial:

The $100,000 of community donations contributed will go toward long-term maintenance of the site. The cost to maintain the Oso Landslide Memorial is estimated at $20,000 to $50,000 per year.

Donations are accepted through the Community Foundation of Snohomish County.

Donate at slidememorial.com/support.

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez: 425-339-3449; aina.alvarez@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @Ainadla.

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