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News / Northwest

For Oso landslide survivors, ‘Hope walks with the hurting’

Today is the 10 year anniversary of the catastrophic landslide that killed 43 people

By Paige Cornwell, , The Seattle Times (TNS),
Published: March 22, 2024, 7:42am
6 Photos
Michael Grilliot, senior research scientist and operations manager, prepares to fly a drone over the area around the Oso landslide as part of the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure RAPID Facility, funded by the National Science Foundation, Friday, March 8, 2024. The team was scouting in preparation of a "production" LiDAR drone flight scheduled for the following week, designed to monitor the landslide's changes.
Michael Grilliot, senior research scientist and operations manager, prepares to fly a drone over the area around the Oso landslide as part of the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure RAPID Facility, funded by the National Science Foundation, Friday, March 8, 2024. The team was scouting in preparation of a "production" LiDAR drone flight scheduled for the following week, designed to monitor the landslide's changes. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

OSO, Snohomish County, Wash. — Ron Thompson drives his pickup a few times a week to this sacred place and waits with a heavy heart, a mental trove of stories and a green bag of laminated photos. In the meantime, he picks up barely noticeable trash, a garbage picker in one hand and his cane in the other.

Ten years ago, he couldn’t help with the cleanup — his wife, Gail, was too scared to leave his side, even for those brief minutes when they got separated in the shoe section of a store and she started screaming his name. But he’s here now. He picks up a piece of discarded paper, barely a square inch, and drops it in a bucket.

Two visitors come by and start to get into their car. Thompson, 76, grabs his bag of photos of the old neighborhood, walks over and begins the question he’s asked at this debris-field-turned-memorial-site thousands of times:

“Did you know anybody here?”

One says her late husband knew a married couple who died but can’t recall their names.

Oso landslide: A 2014-2024 timeline of devastation, discovery and memory

  • Mar. 18—March 22, 2014: A massive landslide tears through the Steelhead Haven neighborhood in Oso, Snohomish County. Initial reports confirm three deaths and six houses destroyed.
  • April 22, 2014: President Barack Obama visits Oso and says the community "should inspire us all."
  • April 28, 2014: Snohomish County ends its active search for victims. Sheriff Ty Trenary says it is a difficult decision, but wet weather is complicating the effort and making it dangerous for searchers. Two of the 43 victims, Steve Hadaway and Molly Kristine "Kris" Regelbrugge, remain missing.
  • June 20, 2014: The portion of Highway 530 damaged in the landslide reopens to two-way traffic.
  • July 22, 2014: Searchers locate the body of Kris Regelbrugge, two months after Steve Hadaway's body was recovered. Regelbrugge was the last of the 43 landslide victims to be found. In all, about, 50 homes were destroyed, 37 of them in the Steelhead Haven neighborhood.
  • Dec. 15, 2014: The SR 530 Landslide Commission releases a slew of recommendations to better avoid and respond to landslides. The commission appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee makes 17 recommendations, and highlights three: more mapping of potential hazards through aerial scanning, better funding and integration of the state's emergency-management system and more clarity for laws that can mobilize first responders.
  • Oct. 10, 2016: Survivors and families of the 43 people killed reach settlements totaling $60 million in liability lawsuits with the state and a timber company.
  • Feb. 20, 2019: The state Transportation Commission designates a portion of Highway 530 between Arlington and Darrington "Oso Slide Memorial Highway."
  • Nov. 31, 2021: The Snohomish County Council approves $4.8 million for the SR 530 Slide Memorial project as part of its 2022 budget.
  • October 2022: Construction begins on the permanent memorial.
  • March 22, 2024: The SR 530 Slide Memorial opens with a dedication ceremony.

Did you? she asks.

“I lived here.”

The landslide

March 22, 2014. 10:37 a.m. A hillside, softened by a three-week stretch of rain, gives way. About 18 million tons of destruction thunders across the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and rips through Steelhead Haven, a neighborhood of about 35 homes. The awful rumble of shifting earth and towering walls of mud reaching speeds of 40 mph sounds like the crash of a military helicopter.

It was the deadliest landslide in the United States.

Forty-three dead, 11 survivors, a neighborhood gone, countless stories of seemingly unimportant decisions that separated life and death: Ron and Gail Thompson headed to Costco 15 minutes before the slide.

In the immediate aftermath, two grieving widows held hands in a shelter and said they would never let go; media swarmed and President Barack Obama visited; hundreds of first responders searched for bodies in an outer-planet-looking field.

Over time, the widows moved away; Air Force One departed and journalists left save for yearly check-ins; the field was cleared enough that Highway 530 reopened and talk of a memorial began.

But there’s still the broken hillside Ron Thompson sees several times a week while he waits to tell anyone who stops by about the neighbors he lost.

“I’m so sorry you had to lose so many,” the visitor says.

Thompson doesn’t miss a beat:

“That’s why I come up here.”

The loss

It’s the skunk cabbage that takes Joel Johnson back. The foul odor signals the start of spring.

Near Oso, he smells the plants and he’s there again, a volunteer chaplain spending more than a month in the marshy, muddy mess, his boots wrapped in duct tape to prevent sinking hip-deep into the ground, the spud rake used to search for bodies.

At times he’s still overwhelmed by the loss. Forty-three people, taken in an instant. How could he not be?

He often says a prayer, the same he held on to at the slide. He no longer needs his phone to remember the exact wording, Psalm 119, verse 116:

“Lord, sustain me as you promised, that I may live! Do not let my hope be crushed.”

Each person affected by the landslide has carried on — not moved on, but carried on, widow Deborah Farnes says. They carry sadness from what they lost, and for some, guilt when acknowledging the richness of their lives now.

A 10-year anniversary holds varying weight. But it’s a significant passage of time. The 4-year-old plucked from the mud is now an Xbox-loving 14-year-old, the then-young chaplain has graying hair at his temples, the saplings planted at the makeshift memorial for each victim six months after they died are taller than any visitor.

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Jonielle Spillers, who lost her husband and three of her four children, does the math in her head: Jojo would be 23, possibly engaged or even a parent. Kaylee would be 15 and soon getting her driver’s license. Brooke would be 12, on the cusp of being a teenager.

Jonielle lives in Iowa now, close to relatives. She owns O So Beautiful salon, and is mom to 14-year-old Jacob and two young twins. She has a boyfriend with two grown daughters. They’re all happy and healthy.

Still.

“I think it gets harder as the time goes on,” said Spillers, 42. “They miss out on what could have been.”

Grief and loss can’t be quantified, but the story of Jonielle Spillers stood out as an especially heartbreaking detail in a deluge of heartbreak. Hours after leaving for work, a nursing assistant loses her 30-year-old husband, Billy Spillers, and three young children — Jovon “Jojo” Mangual, 13, Kaylee, 5, and Brooke, 2.

An unthinkable loss. How has she gone on?

Jonielle always goes back to Jacob. Jacob, the miracle boy whose recorded rescue out of the mud was broadcast all over the world, whose 4-year-old frame and location in their house somehow kept him alive.

“He lost his entire world,” she said. “I didn’t want him to also lose his mom.”

Maybe that’s why he was saved and she was away, Jonielle thinks. So neither would have to be alone.

The single mom and only child lived in nearby Arlington Heights for a while, and in 2018, Jonielle had twins through IVF with a sperm donor. She wanted a big family again.

Her twins, Nash and Noelle, will never know three of their older siblings. But they have their memorial quilts.

Jojo’s Oregon Ducks hoodie, Kaylee’s and Brooke’s T-shirts, Billy’s Navy uniform — all were recovered from the landslide site, cleaned and given to Jonielle. They made her think about neighbors who checked in during Billy’s deployments and came to Kaylee’s birthday party, or about picking up Jojo, wearing his Oregon Ducks hoodie, at football practice the day before he died.

Jonielle kept the clothes for more than nine years until she called a woman who made memory quilts, blankets sewn together from cut-up garments. Still not yet willing to part with them, Jonielle kept the bundles in her closet. Then she moved them to her bedroom door, and finally to her car. The quilter made four blankets, one each for Jonielle, Jacob and the twins.

“Sometimes it’s hard to look at, because it might bring back memories,” Spillers said. “But I love it. I really do.”

The living

Robin Youngblood has spent the past decade looking for a good, safe place. She went east of the Cascades, between Omak and Tonasket, then the wildfires started. She moved to Arizona, but got sick breathing in dust from the mines nearby. She settled in North Carolina and enjoyed her mountain home, until her floors shook one day as military jets flew over the house.

“The first thing I do is look up that hill, ‘Is the mountain coming down?'” Youngblood, 73, recalls thinking. “I shook for probably an hour afterward.”

She’d seen a hillside coming down before, seconds before the wall of mud hit her Oso home, bouncing her and a visiting friend as they were carried with the slide. She cradled Jacob Spillers in an ambulance after they were both rescued.

She left Oso to escape those memories. They came with her.

“I thought of myself as a strong, tough woman, and I am strong. But I am not strong enough to not have those trauma responses,” Youngblood said.

The trauma responses also follow Jonielle.

On a recent vacation to the Wisconsin Dells, Spillers and her kids were getting ready to head to a waterpark, when Nash, who is on the autism spectrum, had somehow gotten out of their room.

She can’t find her little boy. She’s searching for Nash, no, she’s searching for Jacob. She’s at the fire station and nobody has any answers. She calls hospitals, looking for family and friends. Cascade Valley Hospital says they have a young boy. She asks if his name is Jacob and they say yes. She expects to find him with a head wound or broken bones. She arrives to see him sitting on a bed, shaken but not even needing stitches.

She’s back in 2024.

“We found Nash, obviously, but I was scared to death,” Jonielle said. “It took me by surprise.”

The rainy season is hard — Youngblood won’t drive if there’s any rain. For Deborah Farnes, so is the whole month of March. Her memory gets fuzzy as the calendar nears March 22. It’s like she can’t breathe.

She knows this takes time. It took her maybe three months to finally make a spaghetti dinner again after her husband, Tom Durnell, died in the landslide. Three or four years more before she could sit down and read a book.

“I still can’t paint,” she said. “I can’t get my head around it.”

Love

What would their lives be if the hillside hadn’t given out on a sleepy Saturday morning? Johnson wouldn’t be Darrington Fire District 24’s fire chief. Spillers wouldn’t have Noelle and Nash. Debbie and Jerry wouldn’t be married.

Debbie, 60, and Jerry Farnes, 72, exchange a knowing look when anyone asks how they met.

They have to start at the beginning: Debbie Farnes and Jerry Farnes were Steelhead Haven neighbors. Debbie, then Debbie Durnell, was married to Tom Durnell, a retired carpenter known for making and selling wood furniture. Jerry Farnes lived with his wife, Julie, who wove baby blankets for every new mom in the Alaska town where they used to live, and son, 23-year-old Adam, a talented bluegrass musician.

Tom Durnell’s and Julie Farnes’ bodies were recovered from the debris field. Adam was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center, where he died from his injuries.

Debbie was working her nursing assistant shift at an Everett hospital that Saturday morning. Knowing her husband was dead, she thought all her neighbors had died, too, until a few days later, when Jerry, accompanied by Emma, the family Lab, walked into the shelter. Jerry had been out of town.

Debbie spent days in a stupor, but her daughter invited Jerry to accompany them on a Mother’s Day trip to Leavenworth. At a picnic table, Debbie asked Jerry what music he liked. Metallica, he replied. She loved Metallica.

“We were just two lost souls that didn’t know what to do next,” she said. “We realized then if there were two people in this world who needed each other, we needed each other.”

They married in 2015, in Cordova, Alaska, and live on a lake in Skagit County. She retired soon after the slide.

Debbie struggles with survivor’s remorse. She remembers looking back at Tom one last time before heading to her hospital shift the morning of the landslide.

“That life was gone within hours,” she said. “It’s hard to describe to somebody, that there was nothing to come back to.”

For a while, she tried to keep a foot in both lives.

“I had to let go,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you are forgetting anybody, doesn’t mean you stop loving them, doesn’t mean in your quiet moments you don’t forget the good times. Steelhead Drive was one of the most fun places I have ever lived. But it doesn’t exist anymore. Only in my heart, only in my mind.”

She thinks about the ones who lost children, like her husband, and Jonielle, the one she held hands with while they lay on cots in the shelter. When Jerry’s grandson was born she had a hard time going to the hospital. It should have been Julie going.

Debbie held the baby and thought, “I am going to love you enough for both of us.”

The survivors

Ron and Gail Thompson live about 5miles from the slide area in a house filled with reminders of their old home — a framed photo of an engraving at the site, wooden coordinates of their old address, dozens of signs with the painted word “hope.” It’s all new; the only thing from their 5-acre property in Steelhead Haven that survived the slide is a carved wooden bear salvaged from the mud.

Gail Thompson made peace with the tension between “my really hard story and my really good story.” She wrote out her thoughts so she would remember what to say when reporters began calling for the 10-year anniversary. Ron tears up as she reads it out loud.

“It’s still there,” he said, tapping his chest. “And then I tell people: The day it isn’t, then I get worried.”

The first few years, Youngblood was numb. To heal, she had to feel again.

She’s felt rage at the people who sold property in the area despite knowing there was a landslide risk, and at logging companies she says are responsible for creating unstable hillsides. She lost her home and the dream to turn it into a retreat for visitors to learn about the life cycles. She misses the wildlife — the heron and a little bear that would get up into a tree, pick fir cones and plop them onto cars — and her pond.

In 2016, survivors, including Youngblood, and families of victims reached settlements totaling $60 million with the state and a timber company that had logged above the slope. The effort was spearheaded by Farnes, who says she wishes the cases had gone to trial so they could learn the truth about the slide’s cause.

Johnson, the chaplain, is sometimes asked, and wonders himself, why the slide happened, why it had to happen at that exact spot, why it had to hit that exact neighborhood. He’s learned to embrace the great mystery. He’ll say the Earth has age to it, just like our bodies. His daughter was born a week before the slide and had to be treated at Seattle Children’s for a heart issue. She’s 10 now, tall, a terror on defense on her basketball team.

The memorial

The SR 530 Slide Memorial will officially open today with a dedication ceremony for the 4-acre site of a trail that takes visitors through the history of Steelhead Haven and to panels honoring the victims. A gate showcases the signs Ron Thompson made with a different message for every year after the slide.

For year 10, he’s made another: “Hope walks with the hurting.”

The Thompsons, Johnson and Youngblood plan to attend. Youngblood didn’t want to see the slide ever again. But 10 years is an important marker to her.

“Ten years, for me, it’s a place where I can say OK, well, it happened. I found new normal, whatever new normal is, for each of us,” she said. “I can put some closure on it.”

She plans to stick around for a few days, then head to Sequim. She wants to find a new home with community, and importantly, Sequim is flat and the mountains are far away.

Jonielle Spillers likes to come back, see friends and clean her family’s headstones at a cemetery. But airfare is expensive. Later in the year, she hopes, she, Jacob and the twins will come see the memorial in person.

Debbie and Jerry Farnes talked about what they wanted on their loved ones’ panels. Debbie chose an outline of an LP at the top of Tom’s, for his humongous record collection, and a photo of him riding a friend’s horse. He always wanted to be a cowboy. Adam and Julie’s panel has a banjo for Adam and quilt pattern blocks for Julie.

Today, they’ll stay home. Debbie plans to watch the clock as it passes 10:37 a.m. At 11 a.m., she’ll get off the couch — and breathe again.

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