Oso survivor rebuilding his life six months after disaster hit

STANWOOD — Saturday mornings were relaxed at Tim and Brandy Ward’s house on Steelhead Drive.

They would scramble the extra eggs from their hens as a treat for their five German shorthaired pointers. They’d brew a big pot of coffee.

On March 22, the couple planned to spend their day making jelly from the strawberries Brandy Ward grew in her garden — different varieties she planted in three, 30-foot-long rows.

But first, Tim Ward was going to hop in the shower. He took off his wedding band and his eyeglasses, and heard rumbling like the sound Navy jets make when they fly over the valley.

The water pressure suddenly dropped. The bathroom lights flickered, then went out.

Tim Ward heard Brandy call his name. She was in the kitchen, probably looking out the window. It was the last time he heard her voice.

A river of mud, water and branches smashed through the walls of their home.

Tim Ward felt “thousands of pounds of pressure” on his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to keep his mouth closed as he was carried along. Fearing he would drown, he prayed.

“I said, ‘Lord, I don’t have time to die right now. I have too much left to do,’” he said.

Then he lost consciousness. He woke up buried in a debris pile, 600 yards from where his house had stood.

Brandy was gone. After 37 years together, he just knew.

“It was that husband-wife communication feeling you have,” he said.

From under the tangle of branches, lumber and insulation, he yelled for anyone who might be able to help: “Is anybody out there?”

He kept calling and tried whistling, too. His whistle was how he called in the dogs at night, so he figured his neighbors would recognize the sound.

He could hear someone nearby moaning in pain. Later, he would learn it was Larry Gullikson, 81, who also survived and lost his wife. The Gulliksons lived across Highway 530 from the Wards.

Tim’s military training told him to assess his own condition, then see if he could help others. The pain was immense. He felt his hands, arms and head. Everything was fine.

“I got down to my waist,” he said, “and my waist wasn’t where it should have been.”

His legs pointed in impossible directions, his pelvis and right hip crushed.

Out of the mud

He kept calling out. Finally, someone answered. It was Kris Langton, a Darrington man who scrambled over the mud those first few hours trying to reach his family on the other side. Langton found survivors and flagged down rescuers.

Langton was about 100 yards away and couldn’t see Ward. He told the injured man to signal in some way, to help him pinpoint the location. Ward found a scrap of sheet metal and held it above him.

It took Langton an hour to get to him, wading through the muck. He managed to wave down a Navy rescue helicopter team.

Rescuers put a helmet on Ward, to protect his head while they used a chainsaw to cut him free from the debris. They taped his legs together, to protect them from further injury.

The rescuers asked about Brandy.

“She’s no longer with us,” he told them. “She is with Christ.”

He was lifted out in a helicopter rescue basket, more than three hours after the slide.

Ward saluted the flight crew as he was pulled aboard, the way the Army taught him. His right arm wouldn’t move, so he used his left. It seems strange to him now, the habit, the formality in that moment.

At Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, he remembers someone using oil and cotton swabs to clean the Oso mud from his eyes and nose.

He stayed conscious long enough to tell hospital staff to contact his daughters and his bosses, and to give his family the right to make medical decisions. Then he passed out again.

Minutes, hours and days became a blur. The medications gave him hallucinations. Staff woke him every two hours to turn him over.

There was a 12-hour surgery, and 18 pieces of hardware placed in his body: brackets, screws, bolts. Dozens of staple marks run up his legs and back. The pain, even now, can be cruel.

Ward spent more than two weeks at Harborview, then transferred to a rehabilitation center in Warm Beach. All he owned was a hospital gown. He kept warm with a fleece blanket sent by a stranger. It was a comfort to him, like a child’s teddy bear.

For now, Ward’s family is the key to his recovery. He lives with his daughter, Brittany Juarez, and her husband near Stanwood. Daughter Tiffany Burdette brings over the grandkids. Together they talk, and listen, and cry.

He sees a therapist and attends weekly survivor support groups in Oso. His recovery is more than medicine and stitches, he said, but guided by something bigger than himself.

Lifelong friends, partners

Tim met Brandy in the school band in the ninth grade. He played saxophone, flute and clarinet. She played clarinet and oboe. After high school in Miami, Florida, he signed up for the U.S. Army and she went to college. One day, he ran into her at the mall while he was on leave. She was working at a department store and as a hospital candy striper, bringing magazines to children in the wards and holding the babies.

He asked her out, and they went bowling.

The first movie they saw together was “Jaws.”

It proved the perfect choice. When Brandy got scared, she wanted to snuggle. Tim and Brandy married in 1977 and had their girls.

Tim went to technical college, and was hired in aviation electronics at the Everett Boeing plant. Brandy worked in a lab at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. They lived in Marysville before they found their house on five acres in Steelhead Haven in 1989.

They knew it was the place they’d been looking for.

On their first visit to the neighborhood, Oso firefighter Seth Jefferds walked over to introduce himself. He and Brandy later persuaded Tim to become an Oso fire commissioner.

Through the fire department, they became part of the tight-knit community. They helped with fire department salmon bakes and Christmas parties, where Tim often was asked to say grace.

Steelhead Haven reminded him of where he grew up.

Neighbors had the keys to each other’s houses. “Everybody knew everything about everybody, and we all helped each other,” he said.

Brandy’s group of friends called themselves “The Farm Girls.” She loved her craft room and shopping at the fabric store.

When their daughters were young, she kept them busy with riding lessons, soccer, gymnastics and church. She sewed their Halloween costumes and Easter dresses. For Christmas, she made them matching flannel nightgowns, complete with sleeping bonnets, like on “Little House on the Prairie. When the girls got older, they helped Brandy make the Christmas fruitcake and spritz cookies.

She and her friend Kris Regelbrugge cleaned and dressed the turkeys the Wards raised for Thanksgiving dinners. The women helped themselves to each other’s extra fruit and vegetables.

“We all had gardens out there,” Tim said. “As simple as it sounds, it was extremely peaceful.”

Brandy worked in the garden until it grew dark. When she hinted that she was hungry, Tim knew it was time to start dinner.

In the afternoons, while relaxing in their camping chairs, Tim and Brandy, both 58, watched as the dogs chased rabbits. They liked to watch the chickens scratch and scramble, or “Chicken TV,” as they called it.

At night, bonfires were a common sight along Steelhead Drive. People saw the smoke and knew to head on over.

“The guys would sit around and have a drink, and the girls would sit around and listen to the guys lie,” Tim said.

One day, Brandy told Tim they were going for a drive, and he should bring the checkbook. When they got to Tulalip, he was told to choose a puppy from a litter of German shorthaired pointers. They named the puppy Samson.

During a furlough from Boeing, the couple moved temporarily to Darlington, South Carolina. While away, they decided to get another dog — they named her Delilah — before moving back to Oso. Samson and Delilah had several litters of puppies. From those, Jacob, Moses and Jeremiah joined the family.

Jeremiah was nicknamed “Blue” because that was the color he looked when he was born. Brandy Ward blew her own breath into the puppy’s lungs. Blue was the only one of the dogs who survived the mudslide. He was discovered trapped under a cedar tree, where he was pinned for three days. He wound up losing a hind leg.

Someone, Tim doesn’t know who, paid for Samson, Jacob and Moses to be cremated. Delilah’s body never was found.

Man and dog, on the mend

Tim Ward and Blue are healing together. The rehab center in Warm Beach allowed Blue to visit a few times a week. Blue slipped into his bed as soon as the nurses left for the night. He thought it was a secret, Tim said, but the nurses knew better — they told him he sure seemed to be shedding a lot.

Tim’s first task in physical therapy was to learn how to sit up. His atrophied muscles wouldn’t work. They weren’t responding to his brain as they had before.

The next day, he had to swing his legs over the side of his bed. A nurse wrapped a tether to him and held on in case he fell.

Ward didn’t tell many of the other patients at the rehab center why he was there, other than he’d had major surgery.

He made new friends, including a woman in her 70s who was living two doors down the hall. They practiced using their new wheelchairs together.

One day, he saw the woman crocheting squares of yarn, and he asked her what she was working on. She told him her friends were using the squares to make blankets for the Oso mudslide survivors.

Tim Ward told her to give him a minute, that he had to get something from his room.

When he came back, he showed her his afghan, and told her he’d received one of those blankets. The woman realized who he was, and she cried.

The community support has been overwhelming, he said. Among other groups, the United Way, the Red Cross, Catholic Community Services and the Stanwood Camano Family Resource Center have all chipped in.

No house, but still a mortgage

Meanwhile, the Wards’ property sits vacant. The house is gone. The mortgage isn’t.

It’s not clear what will happen with the land, whether the county will buy it out. The path of the North Fork Stillaguamish River, known to flood, is still shifting. The building codes have changed, and Tim Ward isn’t allowed to rebuild there, even if he wanted to.

His therapist told him to avoid major decisions, like moving and making big purchases, for at least a year.

Small items from the home were recovered and returned. Brandy’s Girl Scout sash. His flight helmet from the Army. Family photographs.

His laptop was found, but it was “folded like the letter ‘U’ where it bounced against a tree.”

His kids bought him another wedding ring, because his was lost in the mud.

They told him Blue would remind him of “the children,” as he and Brandy called their dogs, but he needed the ring to remind him of Brandy, who he always called “my bride.”

Tim keeps his bride’s urn in the spare room at his daughter’s house where he and Blue sleep on a donated bed.

He misses sitting with her by the fireplace at night, the constant blur of the dogs around them.

“We may be separated for awhile, but they’re with me and we talk to each other all the time,” he said.

He was still at Harborview when Brandy was recovered.

Doctors told him from the amount of trauma that happened so quickly, she couldn’t have felt any pain. Her body was identified through serial numbers on medical implants in her knee and spine.

Tiffany Burdette made a computer slideshow of pictures of her mother. Her daughter Addy, who’s 2 1/2, kisses the pictures on the screen. If she hears her grandmother’s name, she turns her head toward the door to see if she’s coming.

Leaning on faith and family

Tim Ward relies on his faith and his family to get by. He doesn’t want to question God’s choices, he said. He figures he’ll find out in Heaven.

Work doesn’t seem as important anymore. Boeing has promised him that his job is safe, but if it comes to it, the company can make airplanes without him. His memory falters, the names and dates slipping out of reach.

He enjoys sitting on the porch with a glass of sweet tea. Blue lies under the trees nearby. They watch the grandchildren play.

The physical therapy will continue into next year. He relies on a walker — a simple task, going to the grocery store, remains a painful challenge — but he can see a future again, for himself and for those he loves.

He’s been thinking about the years he has left, and who he wants to be.

His purpose in life no longer is being a good husband and taking care of 5 acres out on Steelhead Drive.

“It’s to be a father and a grandfather, to be somebody who can point out that it’s OK, that this is something we can all get through,” he said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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