A family’s long search after the Oso mudslide

OSO — Mark Gustafson’s family spent 18 days searching.

The carpenter, avid fly fisherman and father of four was among the dozens of people missing after the March 22 mudslide.

As soon as they could, his relatives flew in from out of state and, in one case, from overseas. They spent day after frustrating day scraping through a wasteland of mud and wreckage.

A few days in, son Jeremiah Gustafson found something that could only have come from his dad’s house: a photo of himself in the fourth grade.

“You knew he was somewhere around there,” he said. “We all knew it.”

The photograph gave him hope. It also drove home why they were there.

He loved the river

Mark Gustafson bought his mobile home on East Steelhead Drive in 1997. For those who knew him, it was obvious why he chose the spot only a few hundred feet from the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.

“My dad loved fly fishing,” said his daughter, Mindi Peake. “He loved that area.”

That’s most likely what attracted him to Western Washington from the tiny prairie town of Belt, Mont., nearly 30 years ago, his daughter said.

Gustafson would spend his days framing houses, then return home to enjoy the outdoors. His children — three sons and a daughter, all in their 30s— didn’t grow up in the area, but they have fond memories of their visits.

“We would just hang out at night and have bonfires,” said Peake, who lives in Virginia, where her husband is stationed in the Army.

She described her father as a no-drama, no-nonsense guy. A private man, Gustafson lived by himself, but stayed close to a circle of family and friends. There were his children, eight grandchildren, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.

His friends included Eddie and Lydia Gaumond, a couple from Arlington, who had season tickets with Gustafson for Everett Silvertips hockey games.

Gustafson turned 55 on March 12. Ten days later, the hillside looming north of his home gave way. It was 10:37 a.m.

The Gaumonds started contacting Gustafson’s relatives to let them know.

Together in sorrow

Youngest son Joshua Gustafson, 30, arrived at Sea-Tac International Airport on Monday from Italy, where he’s stationed as a U.S. Army sergeant.

Jeremiah Gustafson, 32, arrived next from Colorado.

Peake, 34, and her husband, Jeremy, soon followed from Virginia with their 6-month-old son. Sister, Patty Gustafson and her husband, Doug Smith, flew down from Alaska.

“That was pretty much our group,” Jeremiah said. “Every day, consistently, it would be me, Jeremy, Joshua, Doug, Eddie and Lydia.”

The eldest son, Casey Gustafson, 35, also traveled from Colorado, but had to stop searching after stepping on a nail.

The family stayed at a hotel in Smokey Point.

They spent the first days on the west side of the slide. Checking in at the Oso Fire Station in the morning, they would stay as late as they could. They would leave around 6 p.m., dirty, exhausted.

“You get so frustrated,” Jeremiah said. “There’s really not much a human can do without the equipment or the dogs.”

Mud, quicksand and standing water made the going treacherous.

They carried big sticks to probe the ground. Going north from Highway 530, closer to the swollen river, the water got deeper.

“You would sink three or four feet,” Jeremiah said. For safety, “you pretty much had to be by somebody.”

On the fourth day, they walked more than a mile across the slide area, toward Darrington.

That’s when Jeremiah found the photo. It was near a lone Sitka spruce that somehow survived the destruction. The six-foot-wide giant has since become a silent witness to the community’s grief.

“When we found the picture, we didn’t want to look anywhere else,” Jeremiah said.

Other clues appeared on the east end of the slide, including some scraps of blue siding from their dad’s home.

They saw other families who were searching. That was something new: to have families in the recovery zone, alongside foresters, firefighters and disaster-response teams.

The family was grateful for the dedication and respect shown by the pros. They were invested in finding the missing.

The family formed a special bond with Adam Rosenlund, a Pierce County firefighter assigned to one of the search teams. At 10:37 a.m. April 12, Rosenlund stood in the scarred valley and played the bagpipes, marking the third week since the catastrophe.

“He helped us so much,” Jeremiah said. “You could tell he wanted to find him. He wanted to help.”

He did. On Wednesday, April 9, Rosenlund’s team called Jeremy and Joshua over to a spot perhaps 30 yards from the spruce. It was about half a mile from where their father’s house had stood.

They’d found him. They called their sister at 10:32 a.m.

Saying goodbye

Mark Gustafson was the 35th name to appear on the medical examiner’s list of identified slide victims. By the end of last week, there were 41 names plus two people still missing.

Gustafson’s family say his recovery is a testament to the searchers’ resolve. He was buried nine feet deep in mud shot through with logs and pieces of houses.

Whenever searchers found remains, the machinery rested. Workers removed their hard hats. The valley grew silent.

Jeremiah and Joshua took some time alone with their dad.

“We wanted to touch him one more time and say goodbye and tell him we loved him,” Jeremiah said.

The work did not resume until they were ready.

They walked alongside a truck that took their dad to the medical examiner’s tent outside the slide zone.

“The whole time, there was nothing running,” Jeremiah said. “It all shut down.”

Searchers had found the body of Mark Gustafson’s dog, Lefty, several days earlier. Before leaving Washington, family members buried the border collie in the Gaumonds’ yard, near a cedar sapling that had been a gift from their father.

The family brought Mark Joseph Gustafson back to Montana. A graveside service began in Belt at 10:37 a.m. April 19 — four weeks to the minute after the slide.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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