Ron Thompson, a former resident of Steelhead Haven, places a sign marking nine years since the Oso landslide Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the landslide memorial site in Oso, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Ron Thompson, a former resident of Steelhead Haven, places a sign marking nine years since the Oso landslide Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the landslide memorial site in Oso, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

‘It’s the closest I can be to them’: Nine years after the Oso mudslide

In the deadliest mudslide in U.S. history, 43 people died. Families, survivors and responders honored the victims Wednesday.

OSO — On the morning of March 22, 2014, Jonielle Spillers left her home in Steelhead Haven to go to work.

Her husband Billy and four kids were back at home in the neighborhood located about 4 miles past Oso on the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. Despite the sunny day, the month had been ridiculously wet, dumping rain and saturating the soil. Billy and the kids were watching TV when the mudslide happened.

At 10:37 a.m., the rain-soaked hill across the river gave way, dumping an estimated 8 million cubic meters of earth, mud and debris on Steelhead Haven. The slide killed 43 people, destroyed 49 homes and forever changed the landscape of the area.

Wednesday marked nine years since the Oso mudslide, the deadliest in United States history.

To honor lost loved ones, a ceremony was held at Steelhead Drive. Survivors, families of victims and first responders gathered, vowing to never forget. People spoke through their tears. Bagpipes played. Wind whistled through leafless trees during the moment of silence. A bell tolled 43 times, its tone reverberating as the names of the victims were read.

Spillers flew from Iowa to be there Wednesday.

“I remember getting a phone call saying that there had been a landslide, but we thought it was from across the road,” Spillers recalled.

The face of the hill that collapsed is visible beyond a ceremony marking nine years since the Oso landslide Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the landslide memorial site in Oso, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The face of the hill that collapsed is visible beyond a ceremony marking nine years since the Oso landslide Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the landslide memorial site in Oso, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

She had tried to rush home from work, but roads were blocked. She was frantic, trying to figure out where her family was, she said. Spillers called the hospital. Jacob, her youngest son, had been found.

Two men, Isaac Hall and Quinn Nations, charged waist-deep through mud and debris in search of survivors that day, defying the law in doing so. Hall found 4-year-old Jacob Spillers standing barefoot, crying and calling for his mother.

Jonielle Spillers said watching footage of Jacob’s rescue in helicopter SnoHawk10 gives her “goosebumps every time” because it’s like “seeing him being reborn again, plucked from that mud.”

“If it wasn’t for the SnoHawk10, Quinn and Isaac, he wouldn’t be here,” Spillers said. “Because of them, Jacob had the chance to grow up.”

Jacob is now 13 years old.

A person wears a commemorative sweatshirt during a ceremony marking nine years since the Oso landslide Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the landslide memorial site in Oso, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A person wears a commemorative sweatshirt during a ceremony marking nine years since the Oso landslide Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the landslide memorial site in Oso, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Spillers said he’s a “typical teenage boy,” and he “looks so much like his father it’s mind-blowing.” Her husband Billy and kids Brooke, 2, Kaylee, 5, and Jovan, 13, died in the mudslide.

Spillers tried to speak at Wednesday’s ceremony, but struggled, shedding tears before stepping away.

“I had a whole speech in my head …, she said later, “ but (the mudslide) was very traumatic, devastating. But the community has come together like no other.”

Former Steelhead Haven resident Ron Thompson agrees.

Every year, Thompson makes a new sign to hang from the gate to their old neighborhood. This year, it reads “A Community Embrace.”

“You’ll see it in the hugs, the looks, the love,” said Jennifer Thompson, Ron Thompson’s daughter. “This community is amazing.”

A silver bell chimes as the names of victims are read aloud during a ceremony marking nine years since the Oso landslide Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the landslide memorial site in Oso, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A silver bell chimes as the names of victims are read aloud during a ceremony marking nine years since the Oso landslide Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the landslide memorial site in Oso, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

In the years since the mudslide, the community of Oso has worked to rebuild and heal. A permanent memorial is still in the works.

The Oso Slide Memorial Committee and Snohomish County Parks and Recreation expect the memorial to be completed by October. Plans include 26 custom memorial panels by family groupings, a reflection pavilion, survivors shelter, responder area and community gathering space. The committee hopes it will be a space for peace, healing, gratitude and remembrance.

Jessica Pszonka, memorial committee member, lost six family members in the mudslide.

“It’s kind of calming to be here because it’s the closest I can be to them,” Pszonka said.

Eric Johnson of the Snohomish County Firefighter’s Pipes and Drums marches away as he plays “Amazing Grace” during a ceremony marking nine years since the Oso landslide Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the landslide memorial site in Oso, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Eric Johnson of the Snohomish County Firefighter’s Pipes and Drums marches away as he plays “Amazing Grace” during a ceremony marking nine years since the Oso landslide Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the landslide memorial site in Oso, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

She promised her sister, Katie Ruthven, that she’d get the memorial done in time for their parents to see it.

“The plans you see — they were not put together haphazardly,” said Dayn Brunner, who spoke at the gathering. “This is nine years in the making.”

The construction funding has been secured but additional funding is still being sought for an endowment that will cover future maintenance and operation of the memorial in perpetuity.

Its grand opening is tentatively set for next year’s remembrance ceremony.

After Wednesday’s memorial, Spillers will return to Iowa.

She just opened a new salon called “O So Beautiful.”

Kayla J. Dunn: 425-339-3449; kayla.dunn@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @KaylaJ_Dunn.

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