Family members of those lost in the Oso mudslide, along with survivors, release lanterns into the sky at the memorial site on the 8-year anniversary of the mudslide on Tuesday in Oso. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Family members of those lost in the Oso mudslide, along with survivors, release lanterns into the sky at the memorial site on the 8-year anniversary of the mudslide on Tuesday in Oso. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In Oso, lost neighbors always ‘in our hearts — never forgotten’

Eight years ago, 43 people were lost in the Oso slide. As they do every year, friends and family gathered in remembrance.

OSO — A matter of minutes meant the difference between life and death for people in Oso on March 22, 2014.

Ron and Gail Thompson left their house on Steelhead Drive that day just minutes before the Oso mudslide obliterated their neighborhood. The pair almost never went to Costco on Saturdays, but that day they went to pick up buns for a church youth group gathering. They had planned to make pulled pork sandwiches.

At 10:37 a.m., 8 million cubic meters of earth slid off a hill into the Steelhead Haven neighborhood of Oso, taking 43 lives, wrenching trees from their roots and engulfing everything in its path under a brown morass. It remains one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history.

It’s been eight years since. On Tuesday, the Thompsons were among a group of about 30 community members and first responders who gathered for an annual remembrance ceremony at the memorial site off Highway 530.

They wore matching T-shirts, saying:

“Oso Life,

Oso Love,

Oso Strong,

Oso, WA”

Printed on the back of the shirts, their old address: 30812 Steelhead Drive.

Gail Thompson is comforted by Chaplin Joel Johnson while she reads a speech she wrote earlier in the morning at the Oso Memorial on Tuesday in Oso. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Gail Thompson is comforted by Chaplin Joel Johnson while she reads a speech she wrote earlier in the morning at the Oso Memorial on Tuesday in Oso. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People cried and bowed their heads as Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper and Darrington Fire Capt. and chaplain Joel Johnson read the names of the 43 people who were killed, ringing a bell for each.

The youngest victim was four months old — baby Sanoah Huestis. The oldest, Bonnie Gullikson, was 91.

At exactly 10:37 a.m., the group took a moment of silence to commemorate the disaster that would forever change the town they love.

Gail Thompson wept as she addressed the group, saying she woke up that morning feeling “frozen.”

“We see this sacred ground all around us which will be our forever home,” she said. “Our neighbors and our neighborhood will always be in our hearts — never forgotten.”

The Thompsons called Steelhead Drive home for more than 10 years.

“We always called it our little slice of heaven on Earth,” Gail Thompson said.

People walk down through a row of trees planted in rememberance of those lost in the Oso mudslide, Tuesday in Oso. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People walk down through a row of trees planted in rememberance of those lost in the Oso mudslide, Tuesday in Oso. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Dayn Brunner helped organize Tuesday’s ceremony. He lost his sister, Summer Raffo, in the slide. She was 36.

“Today is not about this day. Today is about every day,” Brunner said. “Every day that all of us go through and try to live our lives without our loved ones. … We all think in our heads: Man, if I could only rewind that clock.”

Scott Williams, of Lynnwood, also attended Tuesday’s ceremony. He said he was part of the rescue crew eight years ago, tasked with photographing the aftermath of the historic event.

“The first week, we didn’t have FEMA here,” he said. “What we had was young men wearing flannel logging shirts. Maybe the night before, they were out having a beer with their buddies, not knowing that the next day, they’d be out looking for their neighbors. These big, tough guys would sit down on a rock and just break down.”

Cheryl Burrows pauses at her old mailbox at the Oso Memorial on Tuesday in Oso. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Cheryl Burrows pauses at her old mailbox at the Oso Memorial on Tuesday in Oso. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Williams said he was one of the only people to document the rescue efforts, because crews were wary media would sensationalize the tragedy if they were allowed to witness it. Williams’ photos are available for public viewing on his website, williamsworldofphotography.com.

The Lynnwood man said the most frightening part of the slide to him was how toxic the mud was in some places.

“It was bad soup,” he said. “All the chemicals from under your sink, garage, everything. We were concerned about people going in there without the proper HAZMAT-type of material.”

At the ceremony, Brunner thanked the Snohomish County Council for voting to fully fund construction of a memorial.

That financial support comes as a relief to folks who spent countless hours fundraising.

“The toughest piece of this puzzle was to fund this and get it going,” Brunner said. “We knew we couldn’t do it from garage sales and spaghetti feeds.”

People take a moment of silence at 10:37 a.m. at the Oso Memorial on Tuesday in Oso. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People take a moment of silence at 10:37 a.m. at the Oso Memorial on Tuesday in Oso. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

This summer, construction is set to begin on the memorial. The $4.8 million from the county will go to grading and drainage, as well as rock walls, a parking lot and foundations for four shelters. A memorial beacon and 26 panels will honor people who were killed.

The memorial will be fully constructed by 2024, in time for the 10-year anniversary of the mudslide, said Carol Ohlfs, principal park planner with Snohomish County Parks & Recreation.

On Tuesday at dusk, 43 golden lanterns rose up into the night sky overlooking the Stillaguamish Valley. The lanterns got smaller and smaller, then turned into specks of light resembling stars.

“As humans, we were not meant to deal with death,” Brunner said. “We’re merely meant to cope with it.”

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; edennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen

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