OSO — The power of remembering the people who died, those who survived and the lives changed forever was worth gathering Sunday morning amid a viral outbreak that prompted government to limit crowds and travel.
Six years ago, an estimated 8 million cubic meters of earth slid off the forested hill and into the Steelhead Haven neighborhood near Oso. The landslide killed 43 people, ranging from four months old to their 90s.
About 50 people huddled around the memorial site just off Highway 530 in full view of the barren hillside with a light haze in the air from the cool morning fog. Several wore sweatshirts with “Oso Strong” or “Oso Memorial” on them.
Unlike last year, when the bronze sculpture of the residents’ mailboxes was unveiled, there was no grand reveal of a new feature for the memorial area. Arches and gateways for either side of the slide zone were put on hold while the U.S. Forest Service shop where they’re being built is closed because of the new coronavirus disease COVID-19, said Darrington resident Dayn Brunner.
“Six years ago our lives were turned upside down,” he said to the crowd. “It doesn’t seem real.”
His sister, Summer Raffo, died in the natural disaster.
The gate from the highway has several wooden signs on it that say “Steelhead Dr. Always in our hearts never forgotten,” “Grief is the price you pay for love,” “Highway of hope” and “We are stronger together.”
One concrete barrier is spray painted green: “OSO.” Another holds a few cairns, stacked rocks that serve as a memorial.
Near the gates stands the mailbox sculpture. Behind it, bright yellow daffodils bloomed.
A row of shrubs memorialize the victims. A wooden heart at each has a name. Some have mementos on the ground near them: a garden gnome, a hat, an unopened Heineken bottle, a purse.
With state-ordered limits on crowds and for social distancing of 6 feet, people kept apart mostly. Some shirked worries over the disease and hugged. “I’m not worried. Are you?”
They’re all part of a grief-stricken club that chooses to remember the people who died that day.
“We come here together for comfort, for love, and for security,” Brunner said.
Only a couple of people spoke as part of the annual remembrance, Oso Fire Department chaplain Joel Johnson and Brunner. Time was available for others who wanted to say something or share a story, but nobody in the crowd stepped forward.
Johnson and Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper read the names of each victim and rang a bell, then named the 11 survivors. They asked for a minute of silence, followed by a prayer from Johnson.
“We ask that you (God) would hold us together, that hope would endure,” he said.
Memorial coins, recently produced, are one way the organizers hope to raise funds for the other permanent structures, which they plan to install in phases as money comes in.