OSO — March 22 is a day of mourning and remembrance for many in north Snohomish County.
It has been for seven years since that horrific morning when 43 lives were lost as the forested hillside above the Steelhead Haven neighborhood near Oso came crashing down. Those who died that day — folks in their homes or going about their day-to-day business — ranged in age from four months to their 90s.
On Monday, as has become an annual ritual, about 80 people gathered at the memorial site off Highway 530 to recognize the lives lost, the survivors and the small army of first-responders who flocked to the small town when disaster struck.
Wet-eyed and sniffling, many embraced. A community forever changed, bonded by tragedy.
Closures and concerns over the COVID-19 virus didn’t stop the gathering last year, and the ongoing pandemic wasn’t going to cancel this year’s remembrance, either.
As in years past, people greeted one another warmly, but from beneath black masks that included the familiar rallying cry, “Oso Strong,” in white capital letters.
Some paced among the rows of shrubs planted to memorialize the dead. Others tightened wooden signs on the gate near the road or admired the bronze sculpture of the community’s mailboxes that was unveiled in 2019.
“We are still picking up the pieces, because all of this is still very, very raw,” said Dayn Brunner, emcee of the event whose sister, Summer Raffo, died in her car when it was swept away and buried in the mud. “They say time heals, but it doesn’t.”
Gail Thompson lived on Steelhead Drive before the disaster. If it weren’t for a trip to town, Thompson and her husband surely would have been added to the list of those lost.
Thompson recalled seeing her neighbors sitting by the fire and others driving into the community on the morning the hillside fell.
“We waved hello, not realizing it was a goodbye and that we wouldn’t see them again,” she said during the hour-long commemoration.
Thompson and a few others spoke during the remembrance. Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper and Darrington Fire Chief Dennis Fenstermaker read the 43 names and accompanied each with the toll of a bell. Then they named the 11 survivors.
At 10:37 a.m., the time the hill above Steelhead Drive collapsed, there was a minute of silence. Oso Fire Department chaplain Joel Johnson followed with a prayer, and a bagpiper from the South County Fire Honor Guard performed “Amazing Grace.”
“A community embrace, for us, is a place,” Thompson told the bereaved. “This place.”
In the years since the 2014 tragedy, the county has worked with survivors and those who lost loved ones to create a permanent memorial.
In October, as part of the most recent stage of construction, two Douglas Fir archways were raised along Whitehorse Trail to identify the memorial site.
County officials said the pandemic slowed other progress, but they are optimistic that logistical challenges, like applying for permits and changing county code, will be solved.
“We are at this point where this is doable, it really now is about can we generate enough funds to make it happen,” said Tom Teigen, director of the county’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “I am more hopeful this year that we are on the cusp of actually developing it.”
Sharon Swan, the county’s principal planner, said the county is expecting nearly $800,000 from state and federal agencies to support the project.
In the past, the cost for the memorial site has been estimated at between $6 million to $7 million.
Through fundraisers and events, Brunner said, more than $1 million has been raised. He said loved ones, survivors and responders have pared down the project to just over $4 million, which they plan to install in phases as money comes in.
“What we don’t want to do is give up,” Brunner said.
As the commemoration closed Monday morning, Mother Nature provided a fleeting image of hope. Amid the shifting spring weather, from sunshine to showers, a small rainbow appeared on the barren hillside above.
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; email@example.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.
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