As the Oso mudslide’s one-year mark approaches, emotions run high

OSO — A year of grief.

By Sunday, families will have lived a full cycle of birthdays and holidays without the 43 people who died in Snohomish County’s worst disaster.

Those most affected by the Oso mudslide have the chance to gather Sunday at sacred ground, at a sacred time. They’re calling it a remembrance.

“Sometimes I feel like March 22, 2014 was yesterday. At other times I feel like March 22, 2014 was years ago,” said Dayn Brunner, whose sister, Summer Raffo, was killed in the slide as she drove on Highway 530. “For me, it’s a milestone. Emotions are running high with a lot of people.”

In the Stillaguamish Valley, Ground Zero is the area that used to be the Steelhead Haven neighborhood. A moment of silence is planned there at 10:37 a.m. to coincide with the exact time that Hazel Hill crumbled on the opposite bank of the river.

The event is not open to the general public. Authorities plan to close the surrounding stretch of Highway 530 for the memorial, from 9 a.m. to noon. They’re asking airplane and helicopter pilots to avoid the area out of respect for the mourners.

The observance includes an honor guard and a color guard, with a bell tolling for the lives lost.

Planning has been sensitive.

Marking the first year will hold special significance for survivors, said Karla Vermeulen, deputy director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at State University of New York at New Paltz.

“It’s more than symbolic. There’s something very real about that: ‘I’ve gone through an entire cycle without the person,’ ” Vermeulen said. “It’s not just the emotional loss of your spouse or your child, it’s also the personal changes in your life that this brought about.”

The ceremony will be different from ones that will come in five or 10 years. Over time, the focus often shifts from the dead to the living. Vermeulen said she observed that later anniversaries following the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing included picnics, concerts and fun runs.

While healing progresses, it’s never complete.

“There is no such thing as closure,” Vermeulen said. “People don’t spend a year in mourning and then reach some magical moment where they’ve put the loss behind them.”

Observing the first year since the disaster can be therapeutic for some. For others, it will be a difficult time when emotions come welling up.

“They often do cause an increase in distress, because it focuses on the loss,” Vermeulen said.

Not everyone will attend. That’s normal.

Survivors might prefer to spend time with family, in private. Others might opt for a vacation. Some might feel as though they’ve been grieving every day, and see no need to set aside another day.

Grief counselors advise people to make their own choices.

“Don’t feel obligated to participate in something that you don’t feel right about,” Vermeulen said. “With these collective events, there’s almost that pressure to attend the public ceremony.”

Until February, a few different groups had been making separate preparations for Sunday. Snohomish County got involved to help coordinate the varying plans. It was a complex process and not all families agreed on the best way to go about it.

“Family members are at different stages of the grieving and healing process,” County Executive John Lovick said. “We have to respect that.”

Feelings remain as raw as the mile-wide scar the mudslide left through the valley. For many survivors, so do circumstances.

As they struggle to cope with their sorrow, some are still fighting to right themselves financially, even to find permanent housing.

The county changed the program for Sunday’s remembrance several times last week, trying to balance competing desires.

One rift opened over the extent to include not just families, but emergency workers. While one faction pressed to give families more private time, a majority favored a bigger role for emergency workers.

“In everything that we did, we wanted to put together an event that gave the families the private time that they needed, which will be at the start,” Lovick said. “Some of the families also have a desire to have first responders there and to have community members there.”

Firefighters and police officers, search experts and foresters, plus legions of volunteers toiled for months in the debris field, looking for human remains. Searchers found the last of the 43 victims, Kris Regelbrugge, four months to the day after the mudslide. She was under 18 feet of dirt and debris.

Brunner helped plan Sunday’s event. To the extent possible, he hopes it provides everyone what they need.

“It’s part of my healing,” he said. “It’s part of this community’s healing.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Registered nurse Estella Wilmarth tends to a patient in the acute care unit of Harborview Medical Center, Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, in Seattle. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is deploying 100 members of the state National Guard to hospitals across the state amid staff shortages due to an omicron-fueled spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Inslee announced Thursday that teams will be deployed to assist four overcrowded emergency departments at hospitals in Everett, Yakima, Wenatchee and Spokane, and that testing teams will be based at hospitals in Olympia, Richland, Seattle and Tacoma. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Past the omicron peak? Snohomish County’s COVID cases declining

Hospitalizations are still a concern, however, and infections in Eastern Washington and Idaho could have ripple effects here.

Funko mascots Freddy Funko roll past on a conveyor belt in the Pop! Factory of the company's new flagship store on Aug. 18, 2017.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Despite Arizona move, Everett leaders expect Funko HQ to stay

The toymaker is closing Everett warehouses. But a recent “HQ2” expansion has the city confident Funko will remain rooted here.

Lynnwood Public Works employees on the snow plow crew sit in front of one of the city's two plows that will be named based on results of an online public vote. (City of Lynnwood)
Lynnwood snow plow names: Snowbi Wan Kenobi, Plowy McPlowface

They got the two highest votes in an online public survey by Lynnwood Public Works.

2021 survey results from the State Broadband Survey for Snohomish County. (Washington State Department of Commerce)
$16M grant to speed up broadband to north Snohomish County

In Darrington and elsewhere, rural residents have struggled to work remotely during the pandemic. A new project aims to help.

Police looking for Mukilteo bank robber, seeking tips

The man appeared to be in his late 20s or early 30s, white, slender, about 5-foot-8, with dark blond hair.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Everett in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Woman’s foot burned in south Everett apartment fire

Everyone escaped the fire that scorched a third-floor unit Monday night.

Michelle Roth is a registered nurse in the Providence Emergency Department on Sunday, January 23, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Nurses face burnout as hospital staffing shortage continues

‘It feels like there has been a mass exodus in the last two to three months.’

Christa Meyer, residential physical therapist in Mountlake Terrace, Washington, plays Wordle daily. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
What in the world is Wordle? It’s an online game C-R-A-Z-E

Solving the daily five-letter brain teaser in six tries is the latest social media obsession.

Police: Everett man left family member with life-threatening injuries

An Everett man, 23, was in jail on $100,000 bail after being accused of confronting women and attacking a relative.

Most Read