Memorial event remembers 43 lives lost in Oso slide 5 years ago (slide show)

“Always in our hearts. Never forgotten.”

OSO – A memorial remembrance Friday marked five years since the Oso landslide, the single deadliest landslide in U.S. history.

For the survivors, family and friends of the 43 people who lost their lives in the March 22, 2014 tragedy, the road to healing has been long. It’s a new normal, they said, and things will never be the same, but they’re together, determined and Oso strong.

For groups looking to establish an Oso Slide Memorial on the hallowed ground just off Highway 530, they got a visual reminder of home as it once was when Ron and Gail Thompson pulled back a canvas unveiling a bronze sculpture of the row of mailboxes that once stood at the entrance into Steelhead Haven. They touched the boxes and hugged as they went.

The sculpture titled “It was a Home,” was designed by Louise McDowell, depicting the landmark mailboxes as a way to honor the community centered around Steelhead Drive, C Post Road and the highway.

The Thompsons were overwhelmed by the crowd Friday.

“What a support group,” slide survivor Ron Thompson said. “All these people came to support us and the ones that we lost. And that’s what it’s all about is those 43 neighbors we lost.”

Thompson is Oso’s resident wood sign man. He has etched inspirational messages and dates into signs hanging at the memorial site and within a “family tree” slide mural painted on the wall at the Arlington Community Resource Center by a woman who lost her father in the slide.

Thompson has spent lots of time at the memorial site to answer visitors’ questions. Among the affected families, he said he is hearing stories that members are starting to open up a bit more, and feeling more comfortable with recounting their experiences.

He was clearly moved by the event’s turnout. “I’m surprised and not so surprised,” he said. “It’s heartening. My eyes are leaking.”

Added wife Gail Thompson, “In our healing hope this day as we gather and as we return from where we came from, we’ll know that are hearts are connected, and we are loved and strong in Oso.”

Opening the ceremony, survivor Dayn Brunner spoke to the many family members seated beneath large tents, with first responders and dignitaries gathered as well.

Brunner’s sister, Summer Raffo, died in the slide when she was driving along Highway 530. He and his sons were part of recovery efforts, trudging through mud and debris looking for signs of life.

The families gather yearly on March 22. He thanked the larger assembly who joined with them for the five-year commemoration. “The common thread is family,” he said. “We are all family now.”

The emotions he experienced after the disaster are still powerful today. “It’s hard to get through it, but we do it,” Brunner said. “To me, it seems like yesterday.”

The memorial at the slide location Friday was for families, friends and first responders. A moment of silence was observed at 10:37 a.m., five years to the minute when unstable hillside collapsed, sending mud and debris across the north fork of the Stillaguamish River, engulfing a neighborhood and spreading over a square mile.

Two more poignant moments were when a bell tolled as each of the names were read of those who died, and a lone bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” off in the distance.

A year after the slide, 43 trees were planted in memory of those who died. The pines, some reaching 10-feet high, and the ground around them are decorated with flowers, photos and personal mementoes that pay tribute to fallen family members. 

County Councilman Nate Nehring said the events that unfolded each day as search and rescue continued left scars that run much deeper than the ravaged hillside that stands now as a testament to those lost that fateful day.

Some wounds will heal, and some will never go away, Nehring said, but from the loss, the legacy of a new sense of community, strength and understanding emerged. “The courage and selfless commitment demonstrated during this event stands as a shining light born out of this tragic day,” he said.

Shawn Yanity, chairman of Stillaguamish Tribes, performed a drum song and blessing. “I don’t think I have to explain the love that we all have for this valley,” Yanity said. “My ancestors called it home. When settlers came here, they called it home. This is your home, this is our home.”

When the slide happened, tribal members lost friends and family too. “We want to stand here with you, in solidarity, hoping that we can lift your hearts, and your sorrows that you feel,” Yanity said.

Darrington Fire District No. 24 Chief Dennis Fenstermaker spoke on behalf of first responders, firefighters, EMTs, law enforcement and myriad state, federal and local resources who worked together in the most complex emergency situation of his 45-year career.

He also praised local citizens who jumped into rescue and recovery efforts to help in any way they could.

“They were used in any capacity possible at first, and then organized into rescue teams,” Fenstermaker said. “Their contributions were the equal of any other rescue team member.”

The slide caused the worst kind of natural disaster possible, with loss of life and property, life-threatening injuries, destruction of infrastructure and economic hardship. “Often the worst of situations also provides the opportunity to see the best in people, and that was the case here,” Fenstermaker said.

An effort to construct a permanent Slide Memorial is under way that will commemorate and educate people about the lives lost, a community destroyed, the first responders’ and rescuers’ heroic efforts, the grief and resilience of the survivors, and the geological event itself. The Snohomish County Parks Department has been working with families of victims, survivors, first responders and others to build the site on four acres, which would include passive landscaped areas to recognize individuals lost in the slide, a covered area with personal memories, interpretive and historical signage, and parking. The Slide Memorial team hopes to raise $6 million to complete the memorial. So far, $87,000 has been raised and about $150,000 in professional services donated.

Families of the victims, first responders and community members will host a gala benefit, the PNW Paradise Ball, at the Seattle Marriot Waterfront Ballroom on June 22. Tickets are available at www.SlideMemorial.com. The families are also asking for donations and sponsorships.

As part of the ceremonies, a 23-mile stretch of Highway 530, between mileposts 22 and 45, was renamed the “Oso Slide Memorial Highway.”

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