Oso shows its heart during ceremony honoring slide victims

OSO — The Sunday morning ceremony — short, direct and heartfelt — was vintage Oso.

It was a reunion of sorts and a milestone, too.

Six months had come and gone since the worst natural disaster in Snohomish County history.

Medics and firefighters from near and far, hobbled survivors and family and friends whose loved ones died in the massive March 22 mudslide gathered beneath a giant American flag. It was hoisted to the top of a tall, branchless tree that somehow had defied the wrath that devastated the valley.

They stood together on solid ground that once was an unforgiving swamp of mud, clay, trees and ravaged homes. It took four months, but the bodies of all 43 people who died that day were recovered.

Tim Ward, widowed and badly injured, walked with a cane through the wood chips and recently seeded soil. Near him was his loyal dog, Jeremiah, minus a hind leg taken by the slide. Ward thanked all of those who came to help his beloved community in the days, weeks and months afterward. He then led a prayer that spoke of renewal and a time in the afterlife when he and his neighbors will catch up with those they had so cherished.

Ron and Gail Thompson, his arm around her shoulder, wore black shirts with their old address — 30812 Steelhead Drive — stenciled in white letters on the back. They consider themselves fortunate. While they lost their house, they still have each other. The couple moved into a new home in Oso in July and they continue to try to help their displaced neighbors.

Dayn Bruner was there with his mother, Rae Smith, of Darrington. Summer Raffo — Bruner’s sister; Smith’s daughter — was swept 400 feet off Highway 530 as she drove to a horse-shoeing job in Trafton that morning. Her blue Subaru was swallowed up by the mud.

The landscape, so tamed by sun and heavy machinery a half year later, bears little resemblance to the morass where Bruner and his family searched for Raffo. He pointed to a maple tree on the periphery of the slide and the rebuilt highway as landmarks he uses to triangulate the spot where she was found.

“Every day gets a little better,” he said.

The search and the support his family received has helped him with his grief.

To his surprise, he hasn’t had nightmares, just one dream of a family get-together. Summer was there. It was nice to see her again.

Sunday morning was a time of hugs, handshakes and sharing memories.

In the crowd were a host of dignitaries, but no one — not the governor, congresswoman, state senator or county executive — spoke. It was not the time for speeches.

Willy Harper is the small-town chief of the volunteer Oso Fire Department thrust into a national spotlight after the slide.

“A reporter asked me what it feels like as we near the six-month mark,” Harper said Sunday. “I told her some days it feels like it has been 10 years and others 10 minutes.”

Later, he added, “We’ve learned many things in the last six months. One important one is to live each day to its fullest, appreciate what, and more importantly who, you have. All can be gone in an instant.”

At 10:37 a.m., the moment when the slide forever changed the valley, a color guard of firefighters in crisp ceremonial uniforms marched solemnly toward the tree where the flag moved limply in the waning summer breeze. They lowered it to half staff before raising it up again. A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace,” drowning out a rooster crowing in the distance.

Bellevue Fire Department Lt. Richard Burke was a part of the honor guard. He got to know Oso well last spring, lending a hand in the grim aftermath as searchers scoured the debris for bodies. He grew close to the rural community and the teams of volunteers trying to help.

“People ask me: What what the hardest day?” he said. “I tell them, it was the day I left.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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