OSO — Gail and Ron Thompson each held onto the ivory canvas as it fluttered in the wind.
Together, they pulled the sheet back to reveal a bronze sculpture of the mailboxes that were there five years ago, at the entrance to the Steelhead Haven neighborhood near Oso.
The crowd cheered as Gail Thompson walked down the line, touching her fingers to her lips and then brushing each one. She and her husband embraced, their former address on Steelhead Drive printed on the back of his shirt.
Their home was once to the left of the mailboxes. Now, in its place are brown, brush-covered dunes.
Families whose loved ones died, along with survivors and first responders, gather each year to remember the 43 lives lost in the Oso mudslide on March 22, 2014.
Amanda Suddarth used to live in the neighborhood there. She and her son, Duke, were seriously injured.
She cried as she shared memories of those who were killed.
“To me, the mailboxes were a sign that I was home,” she said. “The slide took away any resemblance of home for all of us, so knowing we have our mailboxes back is comforting. Knowing there is something to show people that we were here. To remind us in this unrecognizable landscape that we all have memories here.”
Gail Thompson hadn’t seen the bronze sculpture before the unveiling.
“It took my breath away,” she said.
The originals were a bit more beat-up, but otherwise looked the same, she said.
She recalled times she would run into neighbors while they were getting the mail. They would make plans to meet around backyard fire pits during the weekend.
Under the mailboxes, on the right side, a wooden sign used to read “Steelhead Drive.”
The day after the slide, Dayn Brunner and his sons were in the mud, searching as part of the recovery effort. He found part of the placard about a quarter-mile from where it’d been.
“All three of us just started bawling,” he said.
A year later, he and his son Riley Brunner, who was then in high school, placed the fragment in a cabinet they had built. It’s now displayed at the Darrington fire hall.
Dayn Brunner lost his sister, Summer Raffo, in the slide. She was driving on Highway 530 at the time.
Friday’s gathering was a milestone, Brunner said. It marked five years since the disaster, and also the start to a permanent memorial. He and others have been working on the plans for almost two years. The mailboxes are just one element of a proposed 4-acre park.
Part of Highway 530 also has a new name. Signs for the Oso Slide Memorial Highway were unveiled at mile posts 22 and 45, between Arlington and Darrington. For Gail Thompson, it symbolizes how the two towns came together for Oso and the valley between them.
A year after the slide, 43 trees were planted to represent each of those who died. They’ve grown from knee-high seedlings to nearly 7 feet tall.
Chaplain Joel Johnson’s daughter was born about a week before the disaster. She just turned 5, and it reminded him that there’s life and hope in the midst of grief.
Amid the somber tone Friday, plans for the memorial park brought an undercurrent of celebration.
In 2018, the Snohomish County parks department took charge of construction and has drafted conceptual plans. Within the park, a path will meander through remembrances of each of those who died, recognition of the responders and information about what happened. The path ends at a pond that overlooks the scarp.
The memorial is expected to cost about $6 million and includes a maintenance endowment.
On Friday morning, at least 100 people spilled out from under green-and-white striped canopies. Past ceremonies had drawn smaller crowds. Some wondered aloud: Maybe that’s because they hadn’t been ready until now.
The group held a moment of silence at 10:37 a.m., five years to the minute from when the hill fell. A chorus of frogs chirped their greetings to spring in the background. A young girl called to her father.
Brunner took the microphone and thanked groups of people for their support, repeating the word “family” six times.
“Do you see a common thread? It’s family,” he said. “We are all family now.”
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listen to a KNKX interview with Herald reporters Noah Haglund and Rikki King describing what it was like to cover the Oso mudslide.