As Oso couple rebuild their lives, they focus on the good

OSO — Fate has landed Ron and Gail Thompson back here. They’re counting their blessings as they piece together their lives after the Oso mudslide obliterated their neighborhood.

The Thompsons have moved into a new home on Highway 530, a few minutes west of their old place on Steelhead Drive where many of their neighbors died.

“We call that our paradise and this our promised land,” said Gail Thompson, 62. “We believe God already knew our new address.”

One family treasure that was recovered from the devastation now stands in their new home, symbolizing how different their story might have been. The Thompsons have always been the kind of people who take care of others. And that’s what saved their lives on March 22.

The couple left Steelhead Haven just minutes before the mudslide hit. They had talked Gail’s mother, Mary Jira, 86, into going along, despite her not feeling well that morning. The three headed to Costco to pick up fresh buns for a church youth group get-together. Some 20 people, including one of the Thompsons’ daughters and a granddaughter, had originally planned to come over that morning.

The Oso slide is the deadliest in U.S. history. It killed 43 people and buried a square mile of the valley under mud, trees, debris and floodwaters.

Rescuers pulled 14 people from the mud. All but one of those who were taken out survived.

Searchers pulled the last missing victim, Kristine “Kris” Regelbrugge, 44, out of the debris on Tuesday, which marked four months since the disaster.

“We’re rejoicing,” Gail Thompson said. “It’s a miracle that they’ve found everybody and the families can have that closure.”

The Thompsons are among a handful of people who escaped with their lives but little else.

The American Red Cross estimates about 10 families had their homes destroyed but did not experience the loss of a family member.

“We feel very humble that we’re survivors,” Gail Thompson said. “Our faith has carried us through.”

The Thompsons continue to wear yellow ribbons on their shirts each day in remembrance of the lives claimed by the slide and the devastation experienced by the community.

“The only time I take these ribbons off is in the shower,” said Ron Thompson, 66.

The couple went to most of the memorial services for their 43 neighbors. They also attend as many of the disaster relief fundraisers as possible.

“We felt it important to tell our story and be a voice for those who couldn’t,” Gail Thompson said.

They are grateful for the generosity and compassion of others through the tragedy. Although they’ve spent most of their lives giving, they’re now learning to receive.

“Everybody wants to do something positive,” Ron Thompson said. “It all means something.”

The return of one item recovered from the debris has carried significant meaning for the Thompsons.

As a gift for the couple’s first Christmas in Oso, their family gave them a wooden carving of a bear holding a sign that says “Thompson’s.” Oso is the Spanish word for bear.

After the slide, a National Guardsman found the bear in the debris. He was talking about it at a nearby restaurant when a deacon from the couple’s church overheard. The two arranged for the Thompsons to get it back.

“It was like we found one of our children,” Ron Thompson said. “We were jumping for joy.”

It now stands in the couple’s dining room. Still muddy and missing an ear, the Thompsons’ bear reminds the family to count their blessings. They know their story could have been different. Although they lost friends and neighbors, they are grateful to have each other.

“We remember that,” Gail Thompson said.

The wooden heart the bear holds was found and returned separately. It was spotted along Highway 530 on the first day the families were allowed to walk on it after the disaster.

A few other carved bears also have a home at the couple’s new place. After the slide, people who knew about the family’s lost mascot tried to replace it with similar bears.

“Now we have a whole den of them,” Gail Thompson said.

The Oso slide isn’t the first close call the family has had. Ron Thompson would have been fishing on the riverbank hit by the 1967 slide, but two flat tires kept him from leaving Everett, where he was living at that time.

He had another near miss in 2006, when a slide blocked the North Fork Stillaguamish River and caused flooding. He had been walking along the bank an hour or so before that slide hit.

The Thompsons cooked soup and Tater Tots for news crews and disaster workers after the 2006 slide. They let the Army Corps of Engineers set up camp on their land.

The couple had lived in Steelhead Haven since 2003. After raising their five daughters on a farm near Lake Stevens, they decided to downsize to a small house on five acres along the Stilly.

The family showed up in Oso and went to work on the property, remodeling the house and making it a home.

“It was our little paradise,” Ron Thompson said.

He tinkered in the large woodshop. The Vietnam War Navy veteran often helped neighbors, mowing lawns and plowing driveways. A disability prevents him from working outside the home.

The Thompsons, who have been married almost 44 years, shared Friday evenings by the firepit in the back yard. They kept a garden from which they allowed anyone to take produce.

Their daughters and their 13 grandchildren enjoyed the spot on the Stilly as a gathering place.

The Thompsons’ home, a shop, a Volkswagen, an RV and a new John Deere tractor were destroyed in the slide. The couple were left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

The Thompsons and Jira stayed in Arlington with Jennifer Johnson, the couple’s middle daughter, until they got the keys to their new home earlier this month. Their homeowners insurance did not cover any of the losses except the Volkswagen and the tractor.

Johnson, 43, set up a GoFundMe page to help her parents and grandmother rebuild. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, United Way and the local faith community pitched in to help make the couple’s new home a reality. Giving themselves permission to receive the help was a challenge. But once they did, things started falling into place.

“We haven’t wanted for anything since,” Gail Thompson said. “I don’t want to say everything is perfect, but we are blessed.”

The couple credit their family and their faith for carrying them through the nightmare of losing everything they had worked their entire lives for. They made a choice in the face of grief.

“I can be bitter or better,” Ron Thompson said. “I choose to be better.”

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Thompsons took solace from the sorrow by being with others affected by the tragedy.

“We had a lot of strangers before who are friends now,” Ron Thompson said.

They remain grateful for the tight-knit community and the hard work of the first responders.

Gail Thompson is still coping with the loss by journaling with her red pens.

She spends a couple of hours in the morning praying, reflecting and writing. Notebooks and red pens were among the first things the Thompsons’ granddaughter, Kelly Johnson, 21, put on the list to be replaced after the disaster.

Ron Thompson is again tinkering in his woodshop. He’s known for carving wooden plaques for his family and neighbors. He said he made a mess in his daughter’s garage as he dealt with the slide.

“I was making signs as a way to keep myself busy,” he said. “I can concentrate on that so everything else goes away.”

Now, he has the last plaque he crafted before the slide. It reads: “We will overcome.”

Gail Thompson, the parish secretary of 29 years at Arlington’s Immaculate Conception Church, had asked him to make it. She had taken it to her office the day before the disaster.

“I thought we needed to have a saying, a theme,” she said. “We shall overcome all this negativity and see the good in people.”

That turned into a mantra in the melancholy months after the disaster. Gail Thompson picked the sign up the day after the slide and mounted it in her daughter’s home. Now, it hangs near the bears in the dining room of the Thompsons’ new home.

Soon, they’d like to hang maps of the slide area on the walls.

“To me, it’s holy ground,” she said. “We’re moving forward, but we’ll never forget.”

They’re readying the house for Gail Thompson’s mother to come home. Jira is recovering in Arlington after breaking her hip in a recent fall.

Despite the setback, the Thompsons continue to insist on looking at the bright side. People don’t get to pick when they are born or when they die.

“It’s about what you choose to do in between life and death,” Gail Thompson said.

They have been spending their time hosting family gatherings at their home.

And they’re telling their story and that of the Oso community in hopes that they’ll inspire others to share their faith.

“We’ll live happily ever after here,” she said. “I feel a beacon of hope because I believe that all of the good that has happened here — the caring and the sharing — will go on to the next generation.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @AmyNileReporter

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