Couple shared tragedy, loss of Oso, but found love

CORDOVA, ALASKA — Debbie Durnell and Jerry Farnes plan to marry today near a cove overlooking Prince William Sound and the mountains of Heney Ridge. She will wear a lacy, cream white dress she found in a shop in Conway and brown, knee-high work boots.

Debbie laughs when talking about the outfit. “The boots cost more than the dress,” she said.

If those boots seem an unusual match for such a feminine dress, it is by design. In part, they are a practical concession. The couple will be married in a meadow that in the past 10 days has seen rains hard enough to bring yellowed, rain-parched mosses back to life.

But the brand name of the boots, Xtratuf, also says a lot about the couple. Neither could ever have imagined the events that, by turns, would shatter their lives and then, improbably, bring them together in marriage.

It was to this same spot, Farnes Cove, about one year ago that both had come sharing nearly inconsolable grief. Jerry’s wife, Julie Farnes, 59, and his son, Adam Farnes, 23, were among the 43 people killed in the Oso mudslide. Debbie Durnell was at work when the mudslide obliterated her Steelhead Drive home, killing her husband, Tom Durnell, 65, a retired carpenter whose music tastes spanned from opera to cowboy country.

The Farneses had been married for 32 years, living most of that time in Cordova, a small fishing village of 2,100 people.

“Everybody knew Julie,” said Jennifer Gibbins, editor of The Cordova Times. “She was our UPS delivery lady.” She drove around in a van delivering packages and greeting the dogs she encountered with treats.

The Farneses moved to Oso after Julie’s retirement. She told her husband she was happier than she had ever been in her life. Jerry Farnes said he remembers in the weeks before the mudslide he sometimes looked at his wife feeling “so deeply in love and thinking she could never be replaced.”

Debbie Durnell met Tom Durnell in 2006 on the dance floor of an Everett nightclub. He taught her the Texas two-step. They quickly became a couple, never spending a weekend apart over the next eight years. They married in 2010.

The Farneses and Durnells, who were neighbors, soon became close friends. Jerry and Tom often could be found working together in Tom’s home woodworking shop. The couples traveled together to the Pendleton Roundup in eastern Oregon in 2013. Debbie and Tom were teaching Jerry and Julie the Texas two-step.

In June of last year, Jerry Farnes went to the family cabin in Farnes Cove, where he buried the ashes of his wife and son. He asked Debbie Durnell to join him, suggesting it would be a good place for her husband’s ashes as well.

“I didn’t get it ‘til I went there myself,” she said. “It’s the most healing place I could have gone.” The ashes of all three were placed near a cluster of lupines. “We’re still all kind of together in a way,” she said.

“Don’t go away; stay in touch”

The day of the mudslide, Farnes was in Cathlamet, where he had been remodeling the house of his mom, who had died about a month earlier.

“I was cut off — I didn’t have internet, television or anything,” he said. A friend from Cordova called when he heard there had been a big slide in Washington “hoping everyone was OK.”

Debbie Durnell had gone to the emergency shelter and initially was told no one in the neighborhood had survived. “I didn’t know Jerry was out of town,” she said. When he walked in she thought, “Oh my God, he’s alive.”

“We hugged and said we would get each other through it,” she said. “We knew everybody was gone. There was nothing to fix that.”

Yet there was a part of her that just could not accept that Tom had been killed. She stayed at the shelter about two weeks, holding tightly to the image that her husband, “the love of my life,” would come driving up in his truck.

Farnes tried to talk to her. He held her hand. “He very kindly tried to tell me everyone was gone, not just Tom, but everyone and everything,” she said. “He didn’t want me hanging on to false hope. It was his only way of coming to grips with it. I couldn’t handle it.”

Sometimes, in her grief, she lashed out, screaming at him. But as the days passed, she realized he was “the only real voice of reason I had.” Once her kids talked her into leaving the shelter, “I just became isolated.”

She moved in with her daughter, Farnes with his son. They soon found no one could fully grasp the enormity of what they were feeling other than each other. They clung to a promise they made: “Don’t go away. Don’t disappear. Stay in touch.”

One day, Durnell’s grown children decided it was time to get her out of the house. They took her to dinner. The moment she sat down, there was an odd feeling that something familiar and expected was missing — there was no Tom sitting beside her. It was a moment that seemed to capture how abandoned, isolated and alone she felt.

For Farnes, the shock of losing his wife and son often hit while driving his truck. Scenarios would spin out over and over again in his mind: Why wasn’t he there the day of the mudslide? What could he or should he have done? Even while driving on familiar roads, “I would get lost,” he said. “I didn’t even know where I was.”

Memorials for Tom Durnell and Julie Farnes were held on the same day — Julie’s in Cordova and Tom’s in Oso. Debbie Durnell remembers thinking how much Jerry Farnes, a man who loved to hunt and fish and who had so many friends in Alaska, might want to stay there. She wondered if he would ever return.

He did, but soon felt like he was imposing by continuing to live with his son. Durnell’s daughter had planned a camping trip to Leavenworth with her kids and her mom and suggested they invite Farnes to come along.

“Debbie was the only one I could talk to,” he said. “She was the only one that had experienced what I had experienced. The thing was, it wasn’t just the loss of our family. When you have a loss like that, you don’t just lose family, we lost our friends, our houses, all our belongings, photographs, everything.”

They went on a walk one night and talked about things they liked to do, the music they liked, their kids and happy memories of their Steelhead Drive neighborhood.

Farnes said he began feeling protective towards her. “She needed help,” he said. “I was stronger and I felt I could help her.”

“I could find myself again”

Last summer, Farnes told Durnell he was thinking of going to Alaska to sell the cabin in Farnes Cove. She worried about him being alone, surrounded by memories of his wife and his son. Before the mudslide, she and her husband had made plans to meet the Farneses there. “Why don’t we just go and meet Julie’s friends?” she asked.

It was about three months after Julie Farnes’ death. “Debbie was subjected to a town that was Julie’s town,” Jerry Farnes said. “Julie lived with these people for 30 years and then I show up with Debbie. I don’t know what might have gone through people’s minds about that, but we had become very dependent on each other.”

For Durnell, the trip in late June was a turning point. The only access to the cove and the cabin near Cordova is by boat. “It was just nature,” she said. “Nobody demanding anything of me. I could find myself again.”

She could smell the ocean. On a walk around the cove, she spotted otter caves. “It was the best morning of my life since the mudslide,” she said. “That was the first time I felt happy again. I thought: ‘I’m going to be OK.’ ”

Over the next few months, Farnes’ and Durnell’s feelings for each other began to deepen. One day, he summoned the courage to tell Debbie’s daughter what he was feeling. “I said, ‘I think I’m falling in love with your mother.’ Boy, did I get a look.”

Back on home turf in Washington, they sometimes battled conflicted feelings of their own. “There were ghosts everywhere of our former lives,” Farnes said. Among them was the co-op in Mount Vernon where the Durnells had so often enjoyed lunches.

“We initially wanted to avoid anywhere we had been with our spouses,” Farnes said. “Then in Mount Vernon, we decided we needed to experience all those places together to put that behind us. That really made things better.”

Farnes began looking for a house to replace the one lost in the mudslide. It had to meet two criteria: It couldn’t be too far from his two adult sons, “but I didn’t want it too far from my friend Debbie, either.”

He settled on a home near Stanwood and asked if she’d mind coming over to take a look. She, too, was looking for housing and later asked if she could just rent a room from him. They soon realized that they wanted the relationship to be permanent and made plans to marry.

Jerry Farnes is 63, Debbie Durnell is 51. The couple say they know that it’s difficult for some people to understand how quickly their relationship turned to love. One person asked what others no doubt were thinking: Did they have a secret affair while their spouses were living?

“They are a very big part of who we are,” Farnes said. “We talk about them every day.” He said he hopes people will come to understand the hard truth that he and Debbie were forced to accept. Both Tom and Julie are gone. Both he and Debbie remain. “We have to go on,” he said.

As the wedding date drew closer, Durnell said she began feeling “like a blushing bride. We can’t wait,” she said. “We just can’t wait. We’re so excited.”

In Alaska, it’s legal for unordained people to perform a single marriage ceremony. They chose Dixie Lambert, a friend of Julie Farnes, to marry them.

“All our children will be there, probably the whole town of Cordova” at the reception, Durnell said. “They love Jerry and they loved Julie. They’re happy that their buddy is happy.

“We’ve said a lot of times that Julie and Tom would be very happy about this,” she said. “We all loved each other so much.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heralnet.com

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