DARRINGTON — Simple sounds — the snap of a pencil, a drip in the sink — take Riley Brunner back a year to a wet wasteland of massive gray dunes and ravaged homes.
That is what the debris fields west of town seemed like to him: a vast desert of despair.
At 16, and 130 pounds soaking wet, Riley was a Darrington High School junior and one of the youngest searchers after the March 22 Oso mudslide.
That first afternoon, he tromped through the mire alongside his dad, Dayn, and younger brother, Zack, looking for their Aunt Summer and signs of her blue Subaru.
To the north, the broken hillside groaned, dropping giant chunks of earth hundreds of feet below. The echoes thundered across the valley. The search party could feel the vibrations a mile away.
Dayn thinks today about the difference seven seconds might have made.
The calculation comes from experts who studied the slide’s trajectory lines after his sister’s car was finally unearthed. Had Summer Raffo been seven seconds earlier or seven seconds later, she might have survived. Summer, 36, was on her way to Trafton for one of her side jobs trimming horse hoofs. She was caught in the hardest-hit stretch of Highway 530. Lumps of uprooted asphalt were carried more than 400 feet.
Of the 43 people to die, only she was inside a car.
Dayn can’t drive past that spot at 50 mph. He’ll go 35, 40 tops. Often, he imagines how it used to look with trees and homes and familiar shadows.
There are those, including family and federal emergency workers, who tried to stop Riley from joining the search. They questioned Dayn for allowing it.
A year later, the father and son stand by the decision.
“I couldn’t shed the guy,” Dayn said. “He was my rock. He was my support. He was my reality check. I know it wasn’t normal but none of the stuff down there was normal.”
Riley doesn’t look back at the search in terms of days or discoveries. Instead, he most remembers the bonding moments with his dad.
Three stand out.
The first occurred the afternoon of the slide. Summer’s mom, Rae Smith, immediately feared the worst. Calls to Summer’s cellphone went unanswered. She never made it to Trafton. Rae told Dayn: Find Summer.
As Dayn drove his pickup west toward the slide, he told his sons that Aunt Summer might be dead.
Riley bristled. He yelled.
“You have to be strong right now,” the boy told him. “You have to show us how to be strong in these moments, Dad.”
And then they went in.
The second moment that stands out in Riley’s memory is when search organizers tried to turn him away. Riley paced about the fire hall, fighting back tears. His father met privately in a conference room with some people in charge.
Dayn explained that he and his son were a team. Together, they brought knowledge. By then, they’d already been to the center of the slide. Either Riley’s going with me or I’m not going, he told them.
Riley was cleared to go.
“I still don’t know what card my dad pulled,” he said.
The fifth day after the slide brought the father and son closer still.
A heavy rain had fallen, unearthing a tiny blue gleam. Summer’s Subaru.
Dayn got the word from Raffo’s friend, Rhonda Cook, who also was hunting for her.
He and Riley made their way over and joined others digging for Summer. Summer’s hands were still on the steering wheel, solace to Dayn that her death was quick and she didn’t suffer.
The father and son were given space.
For the first time since the search began, Riley saw his father cry.
Dayn fell to his knees, apologizing to Summer that it had taken so long to find her.
Riley knelt next to his dad and put his arms around him.
“She knows how hard you tried,” he said.
They took the next day off to spend with family, waking up at 4:30 the following morning to head back into the debris fields.
There they bumped into John Hadaway, whose brother, Steven, hadn’t been found.
“Why are you still here?” Hadaway asked.
“We have to get everybody out,” Dayn told him.
Hadaway began to cry.
“You stole my heart,” he said.
Dayn spent 39 days in the mud; Riley, the better part of two weeks, including his spring break.
Dayn is thankful to everyone who helped in the search and especially is proud of his community. The outcome — all 43 of the missing found during a four-month span — is remarkable to him.
“I think people are realizing we drew together and were strong in a way we have never been before,” he said. “We did the impossible.”
These days, Dayn stays in touch with other families affected by the slide.
He looks forward to the day the county opens a memorial park in the slide zone. That will ensure Summer and the others are not forgotten. He wants a place to go for quiet contemplation.
Riley has grown five inches from a year ago. He’s a senior and recently finished his high school basketball season. He’s planning to attend community college.The father and son are finishing an oak cabinet in the high school woodshop. It will end up in the Darrington Fire Hall and display relics salvaged from the mud.
Behind the glass will be a section of the Steelhead Haven sign, a local landmark of sorts. It once hung from the bank of mailboxes in a neighborhood that no longer exists. There will be patches from police and fire departments that helped in the recovery and a mud-smeared Darrington Fire District sign shorn from its wooden post by the slide.
Perhaps, too, there will be room for Summer’s horse-shoeing hammer. It was found in her car.
Riley doesn’t dwell on the bodies he saw in the debris field or the sadness he witnessed.
Mainly, he thinks about the time with his dad.
“Family comes before everything,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let my dad go in there alone. My dad has always been my best friend. It’s almost like you think you can’t get any closer to someone and then you just love them even more.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.