Collapse: The Oso Mudslide and the Community That Survived It

The Oso mudslide, one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history, struck without warning on March 22, 2014. This is the story of those who witnessed it firsthand.

By Brooke Jarvis November 3, 2014 Published in the November 2014 issue of Seattle Met



It keeps talking about people screaming, but Willy Harper can hear only one person: a woman, somewhere close. She has a baby with her, someone yelled, and Harper and a small group of civilians are trying desperately to reach her, balancing on the splintered logs and crumpled bits of house that line the edge of the mudslide. They can’t see much beyond the abandoned home washed into the highway. Only mud, endless and everywhere, too thin and soupy to support their weight.

“What do you mean the people screaming?” he says into his handheld, which connects him to another firefighter, a man he knows from Darrington, the town on the other side of the slide. “I hear one lady screaming.”

“No,” the voice replies. “We can hear three men.”

Harper turns to the civilians, young guys smeared gray with mud. Some he knows, others he doesn’t; some are ripping pieces of tin off a roof, trying to build a path to spread out their weight so they don’t sink waist deep every time they fall off a shifting log. They’ve been told not to go into the slide, which blankets live power lines and jagged metal and who knows what else, but they’ve gone anyway. 

“Stop,” Harper says. He’s 36 but looks younger—so much so that the president, when he comes to tour the devastation a month from now, will mention it in his speech. He’ll also call Harper a sheriff, which he’s not. Oso doesn’t have a sheriff, a town cop, or a mayor. Harper is a volunteer, the chief of a crew of volunteers that, in a busy year, might respond to two or three house fires. Mostly it’s car accidents, heart attacks. But this? 

“Be quiet,” Harper says. “We need to listen.” Everyone stops. There’s a thick silence, broken only by the woman screaming. It doesn’t make sense. The Darrington firefighters are responding to the same slide, on the other side of the same road, Highway 530. How can they be hearing people Harper can’t? It’s his first clue that the slide is bigger than what he can see or imagine. It will be hours before he finds out how much bigger: The voice on the radio is coming from a mile away. Between the two men are the remains of nearly 50 houses, the unknown fates of their inhabitants, and somewhere between nine and 14 million cubic yards of what was, until that morning, a tree-covered mountain.

Before everyone had heard of Oso, almost no one had heard of Oso. It was possible, even easy, for people from “down below”—as locals call the more populated areas closer to the coast and Seattle, some 60 miles southwest—to drive right through on the way to the Cascade mountains and never realize they’d done so. The general store, reopened for a couple of years, closed again, leaving only a chapel and the fire station to mark a kind of town center. Harper calls it a highway town, though it also used to be a railroad town, one in a series of once-bustling stops along the railway up the valley carved by the north fork of the Stillaguamish River: Oso, Hazel, White Horse, Trafton, Cicero, Mansford, all strung along the stretch of river that runs between Arlington and Darrington. (The slide, as locals will later point out in frustration, was actually closer to Hazel, a few miles east, but unfamiliar media used the name Oso, and it stuck.) 

The valley has long lived, sometimes worse and sometimes better, mostly from logging, ranching, and homesteading. In the middle of the last century, a network of families moved up from North Carolina, bringing their Southern names and Southern food and taste for bluegrass with them. Others moved to get away from too much structure, too many people, too much government. They built their own homes and in many cases kept them off the grid. They raised and hunted their own food. “Resilient to the point of stubbornness,” one local pastor put it. But you don’t make it in a remote area without knowing, and counting on, your neighbors. Long before the slide, self-reliance meant isolation from the outside world, but not from each other. 

In winter the mountain peaks wring rain from heavy clouds moving east off the ocean, and the hills disappear into drizzles and downpours. But last winter the rain came late, then hurried to make up for lost time. Throughout February and March it was relentless, far above average. The rain quietly saturated Whitman Bench, an already weak slope on the north side of the river, sapping its strength and its structure.   

First Responder Oso fire chief Willy Harper stepped across the mud and debris within minutes of the slide, following the screams of survivors.

Image: Mike Kane

On the morning of March 22, the rain has stopped at last. In the tiny community known as Steelhead Haven, Amanda Lennick is overseeing repairs to her new house: A plumber, an electrician, and Steve Hadaway, a satellite dish installer, all arrive to work on it. Christina Jefferds is home babysitting her four-month-old granddaughter, Sanoah. Fourteen-year-old Denver Harris is home alone. Summer Raffo, a farrier, is driving along Highway 530 in her Subaru, on her way to a horseshoeing job. It is Saturday. It is 10:37 in the morning. People are home from school and work, they are running errands, they are drinking coffee, they are savoring the first quiet hours of a new weekend.

Then the world collapses. There is no warning. 

One man thinks he hears a gust of wind just before everything goes black. Another, in his front yard, looks at Whitman Bench and sees it shimmer. Several people think they’re hearing a plane crash—a big jet, a 747. Amanda Skorjanc looks out her window and sees, for just a moment, the very earth moving toward her; she wraps herself instinctively around her five-month-old son. 

When it lets go, the hillside plummets at 60 miles an hour, trees flying, roots grasping at nothing, and draws down on the community. In less than three minutes, it’s over.

For those outside the slide, it takes a long time to comprehend what has happened. The first emergency caller, at 10:45am, sounds oddly casual. There’s a roof on 530, she tells the dispatcher. There’s flooding too, and some downed power lines. 

Willy Harper hears the call; at 10:47 he radios that he’s on his way. He throws some traffic cones in the back of the Suburban he uses as a command car and heads east, up the valley. Small landslides aren’t uncommon along the hillsides that flank the river, which everyone calls the Stilly, and it’s been so wet. He figures he’ll block off the flooded part of the road, deal with any traffic problems, get the power lines shut off. He tells his wife he’ll be right back. 

More calls come in: There’s a strong smell of natural gas, and someone might be yelling for help. The road is completely blocked. There’s a crushed house sitting on it. The river is rising. “My neighbor’s house, and their neighbor’s house, has been completely taken out. It’s collapsed on several of them, and they’re trapped,” one man says. “I can hear them tapping underneath.” A woman calls, her voice high with panic and disbelief. “Everything’s gone. The houses are gone.” 

Harper arrives at the western edge of the slide and sees feet of mud stretched across 530. He radios for backup, but can’t begin to describe what might be needed. “I didn’t even know what to ask for,” he’ll remember later. “I didn’t know what I was looking at.” Chief Denny Fenstermaker, Harper’s counterpart on the volunteer fire crew in Darrington and a longtime veteran of Seattle’s urban search and rescue team, arrives on the east side, which offers a better vantage point. There’s a flattened house in the highway, and Fenstermaker climbs onto its roof, staring down the tree line. He sees nothing but mud and debris stretching to the horizon. It’s clear that no help will be coming to the Darrington side from the west. The only other access is via a long, roundabout mountain road, a detour of some 70 miles. At 10:58, Fenstermaker radios for a search helicopter, then asks a medical team to start the trip up the mountain. At 11:01, less than 30 minutes after the slide, he radios for the U.S. Navy. 

The Living and the Dead Crews search for victims days after the slide. They ultimately recovered 43 bodies.

Image: Mike Kane

The mud, when Jeff McClelland tries to walk on it
, has the consistency of pudding. One of the first of the Darrington fire crew to arrive at the slide, he is a big man, a longtime landscaper, and he sinks right through. It seems to him as though someone has placed the whole world—trees, sand, cars, propane tanks, houses, a river—into a blender and turned it on. The mountain has settled into strange gray mounds, broken trees sticking out of them at crazy angles. Cars look as though they’ve been put through a shredder. A low white fog, four feet thick, hangs over everything, making it even harder to see. Propane is leaking from smashed tanks. McClelland fears it will ignite.

There are no familiar landmarks. Houses he knew well are simply absent. He breaks down briefly, crying in the mud, then forces himself to go into rescue mode. Emotion later.

He heads back to the slide edge to meet his wife, Jan, who has brought the gear they use when rescuing kayakers and rafters. Jeff’s been a firefighter and EMT since he lived in Skagit, years ago, but Jan, who he married eight years ago, is fairly new to this—she decided to train as a volunteer firefighter when she was already in her 50s. 

A woman and a little boy appear, seemingly from nowhere. “Where did you come from?” Jeff asks. “I don’t know,” the woman replies. She says there’s a man in the slide yelling for help. The McClellands and another firefighter, Shaylah Dobbins, all trained in river rescue, suit up: orange and black dry suits, helmets, life jackets. Dobbins started the day watching cartoons on the couch with her three kids. She got the call, a minor one for a single-engine response, and kissed their cheeks as she left. It will be two weeks of nearly round-the-clock work before she sees them awake again. 

Slowly Dobbins and the McClellands make their way across the mud. At first, Jeff leads the way, but he’s sinking dangerously far into the ooze. The women, lighter, decide to go first, but still they have to practically swim, pulling themselves up out of the mud when they find logs or pieces of plywood. Jeff radios Fenstermaker to send in more manpower. The reply comes back: “We have no resources to give you.” The heavy gear they carry—ropes, a medical kit—weighs them down, so Jan and Shaylah leave their radios behind. Jeff’s, quickly soaked, stops working. He keeps talking into it, but no one replies. There’s no way to know if anyone is listening.

It takes an hour to reach the man, who is sitting on a small rise, clutching his arm. He hears them coming and can’t understand why it takes so long. His clothes have been torn off by the slide, as well as his glasses, leaving him mostly blind. He is wearing only boxers, and he is covered in blood. The muscle of his upper arm is outside of his skin. “Where’s my house?” he asks when the rescuers at last arrive. “I don’t know where your house is,” Jeff says. “But we’re here, and we’re going to help you.” 

They try wrapping the man, Mark Lambert, in emergency blankets, but Lambert has no body heat left to fill them. Shaylah and Jan take off their sweatshirts and wrap them around him, and Shaylah pulls him into a bear hug. His eyes are rolling back in his head, and they fight to keep him conscious. Jan tells him that it’s kidding season at the goat dairy that she and Jeff manage. She delivered two that morning. “As soon as you’re better,” she says, “I’ll introduce you to all my baby goats.” 

A helicopter arrives, a medic descends, and soon Lambert is on his way to the hospital. The three firefighters begin the long journey back. Jeff is sure they’ve been to the center of the slide area. In fact, they’ve traveled perhaps 600 feet into it, seen a tiny fraction of the horror inside. 

Responders hclour
The Rescuers Jeff and Jan McClelland spent the day of the slide searching for survivors and bringing them to safety.

Image: Mike Kane

More helicopters come. Some, too light to drop cables, act as spotters; others pick people off roofs and out of debris. One survivor is found in a shower, protected by its walls. Like Lambert, many have lost their clothes in the impact. They leave the mud nearly as bare as babies, helicoptered away with almost nothing at all. Officials arrive from various agencies and try to take stock. They’ve been trained for lots of emergencies, but there is no playbook for this. Would-be rescuers spill into the slide, ignoring warnings to stay out. Some begin to extract bodies from the tangle. Some are furious that official rescuers, focused on survivors, seem to be ignoring the dead. Locals show up with their own equipment: excavators, front loaders, chain saws. Many are loggers trained their whole lives as if for this moment, to move massive things on treacherous terrain. Shaylah watches the big men with their big machines picking through the mud and is moved by how gently they work. “They were so delicate,” she’ll remember later. “It was almost beautiful.”

On the Oso side, Harper and the others reach the screaming woman. It’s Amanda Skorjanc, the woman who saw the mountain coming through her window, holding her five-month-old baby, Duke. The baby is blue with cold, and Skorjanc, several of her bones obviously broken, is trapped beneath a couch, a tree, and the remains of her house. The rescuers take the baby from her, then set about cutting her free with a chain saw. When Duke stops breathing, a firefighter pumps his tiny chest, and the baby begins to cry.

Randy Dobbins, Shaylah’s husband and the founder of the Darrington fire crew’s swift-water rescue program, arrives on the Oso side of the slide as Skorjanc is airlifted out. He’s been at work in Arlington, but Oso is where he grew up, where he got married. He and Seth Jefferds, another volunteer firefighter, head into the slide via the old railroad bed, now a gravel trail. They don’t yet know the magnitude of the slide; it doesn’t occur to them that it might be big enough to have hit Jefferds’s house on Steelhead Drive, where his wife, Christina, was babysitting their granddaughter that morning. Then they come across a boat caught in a downed tree. “Is that your boat?” Randy asks. 

“Our minds weren’t accepting what they were seeing,” Randy will remember later. They’re 500 feet from where Jefferds’s house should be when Randy finds material that Jefferds recognizes as coming from his own garage. Then they see the door: a white one, sticking up out of the mud like a gravestone. Jefferds stares at it. He falls to the ground. “That’s my front door,” he says. 


A Navy helicopter hovers low over a man and two teenage boys making their way across the slide. “Get out of there!” a voice yells. The slide has completely blocked the river, causing flooding above it and the threat of a catastrophic blowout below; up and down the valley, the order has gone out to evacuate. But Dayn Brunner has no intention of leaving. Though he works as a police officer, right now he couldn’t care less about the law. All day his mother has been calling him, more and more frantic, asking if he’s been able to find his sister—Summer Raffo, the woman who drove her blue Subaru to a horseshoeing job that morning. Their mother spoke to Raffo at 10:22, just as she was leaving the house. She called Brunner as soon as she heard about the slide. At first Brunner tried to calm her: Slides are usually no big deal, and though Raffo wasn’t answering her cell phone, she also wasn’t someone who always kept it beside her. He went to the slide to learn what he could, but was kept away by barricades. His mother kept calling. “I know she’s in there, Dayn,” she said. “I know she’s in there.” Brunner got in touch with the person who owned the horse that Raffo was supposed to shoe. She never showed up.

A friend who works at the Darrington fire station, Trudy LaDouceur, gave Brunner some food and water to take to the responders at the slide’s edge—that way, at least, he’d get to see for himself. Once past the barricades, Brunner took his sons into the mud to search for Raffo. He couldn’t find the words to describe what he was looking at, so he took a video. In it, there’s silence, and then one of his sons speaks. “It looks like a thermonuclear bomb went off,” he says. Brunner pans the camera across the terrible expanse. “Somewhere out there,” he says, “is my sister.”

Stubborn Hope Dayn Brunner spent five days searching for his sister.

Image: Mike Kane

It’s quiet except for the helicopters. The three make their slow way through the slide, sometimes chest deep in mud. It’s hard to tell where they are. The road, the river, the houses—everything familiar is either gone or in the wrong place. They pass two bodies, already covered in sheets: a young girl, perhaps five years old, a man in his 60s. They come across two more, apparently not yet discovered, but neither is Raffo. They find at least a dozen cars. Some are flipped upside down, and one is crumpled to the size of a washing machine. None is a blue Subaru. 

The light slowly fades. Brunner and the boys have no flashlights with them, and they can hear people calling to them on megaphones from the edge of the slide. Brunner looks at his sons, just 16 and 14. Like him, they’re soaked with mud, gray as ghosts, witnesses to the unimaginable. He accepts the necessity of retreat. He keeps hoping there might be a pocket of air inside Raffo’s car, though with all the flooding he’s seen no such pockets. But he hopes. She’s out there somewhere, he thinks, “waiting for her oldest brother to come get her.”

Night is impossible. Stopping is the hardest thing. When there was adrenaline, something to do, some way to help, that made it better. Fourteen people have been pulled, alive, from the slide. With the force of the collapse, the sheer volume of mud, the flooding, the cold, it seems unlikely there will be more. But no one can know for sure. What if people are still in there, living, waiting? 

Evacuated locals and out-of-town emergency workers spend the night on floors and couches, exhausted but far from sleep. Some stay up late into the night, trying to plan where to search the next day or to put together a list of the missing. The list is far too long. The slide knocked out phones and Internet to the west, and cell service is erratic in the valley at the best of times. Which residents had been at home, and which had stepped out for a lucky errand or taken an overtime shift? Which college kids were back visiting for spring break? What strangers might have been driving by without anyone, anywhere, knowing? It’s too much. The list climbs past 200 people. At the Darrington fire station, someone hands Trudy LaDouceur a copy of the first list of names. She registers the awful length of it, but knows she has to keep functioning. She files the list without reading a word.  


Everyone knows someone. If not directly, they know an aunt or a neighbor or a classmate. It’s a small place, close knit, the kind of community where there’s no such thing as a quick trip to the IGA. You always run into someone in the aisle, stop to talk.

Everyone wants to help. On Sunday, the day after the slide, Denny Fenstermaker takes one look at the people who’ve shown up at dawn to help search the Darrington side and tells the incident commander, Steve Mason, that he has a choice: Let civilian volunteers join the rescue workers or use 50 deputies to try to keep them out. Mason, on the Oso side, counts the people trying to help and tells his boss the same thing. “I don’t think you have enough sheriff’s deputies to close down this site,” he says. It’s nothing like protocol, but it flies. Hazmat techs teach people to decontaminate themselves before they eat or drink or scratch their noses—everyone is covered in mud, and the mud is mixed with what Mason calls “a hazmat potpourri” of propane, transformer oil, and septic waste. Over the weeks to come, up to a thousand volunteers will help comb the slide; some will clash with the official approach. Michael Duncan, a Darrington pastor, sees a FEMA guy in a clean white shirt giving instructions to a group of gray-smeared loggers. “Until you’re covered in mud,” one of them interrupts, “don’t tell us what to do.”

The search is relentless, the mud endless. You can’t walk on it, can barely dig through it. It smears everything, buries everything, turns the world and everyone in it slippery and gray. Excavators trying to scoop it away look like they’re pouring soup out of a bucket. Searchers find the roof of a house underneath 20 feet of mud; underneath that, in the pancaked floors, they pull clothes out of bedrooms. On high, drier patches of land they make piles of the salvageable things they find: Pictures. A house
deed. Wallets. 

Someone finds an American flag in the mud. A cedar tree that somehow still stands on the south side of the slide is limbed, and volunteers hang the flag from it at half mast. 

There’s a house that somehow ended up, partially intact, on top of a massive pile of logs. In its attic, searchers find two cars and a tractor. Somewhere inside, a fire alarm is screaming, setting everyone even more on edge, but though they all try, no one can reach it to turn it off. It screams for days upon days. 

People are sleeping just a few hours a night. There are so many volunteers that Willy Harper has to set up a lottery system to determine who will go out on the slide. It doesn’t apply to people who are missing a family member, some of whom go out day after day. 

Dayn Brunner, still carrying the stubborn hope that his sister is alive, is among them. Invariably families want to search where their relatives’ houses have ended up. They want to be the ones to find them. Searching alongside family members is a solemnity trained rescuers are not used to. The order goes out: Everyone who’s found is to be handled with extreme care, moved slowly on stretchers, as if they’re still alive. 

A heavy, soaking rain moves in and doesn’t stop. Places that were accessible start to flood, and some searchers switch to boats. There are still helicopters with thermal imaging cameras, but most people are on the ground, slogging alongside heavy equipment, picking through fragments for clues. They build a network of wooden paths to navigate the slide. Counselors and chaplains come to meet with traumatized searchers ending their shifts. Jan McClelland finds the body of a little girl about the same age as her granddaughter. “You do keep going,” she says later. “But you lie in bed at night, and you think about her.”

On Wednesday, Dayn Brunner gets a call on his cell phone. It’s about the Subaru. Someone spotted a thin blue sliver in the mud, then dug to find the car about three feet down. By the time Brunner arrives, enough mud has been removed that he can be sure it’s his sister. He calls his mom to let her know that after five days he’s done what she asked. Then Brunner, his son, and a group of volunteers start to dig. 

The roof is gone and the car full of mud, but Raffo, they find, still has her seat belt on, her hands on the steering wheel, her right foot on the gas pedal. There’s a grim relief: Like nearly everyone who died, she was killed quickly. 

Brunner asks that the helicopter wait to pick her up so some family members have time to get to the slide and say goodbye. While he waits, he unzips the body bag and holds his sister’s hand. He tells her he’s sorry it took him so long to find her. 

On Thursday, he takes a day off from searching, but on Friday he’s back on the slide, looking for other victims.

When the mountain gave way it consumed a square mile of land and nearly 50 homes.


The donations pour in. They come as bills pulled from pockets and they come as stuffed boxes crammed into semi trucks. They come from perfect strangers from other states and they come from children holding up jars of coins. People send truckloads of diapers and sleeping bags, of dog food and hay. At the Oso fire station, a woman crying so hard she can barely speak holds out a bag. “I didn’t know what to do, so I went to McDonald’s and bought you 100 hamburgers,” she says. Another woman, who drove from two hours away, begs Willy Harper to take her dog. It’s a great digger, she says. Could it help the rescue team look for slide victims? Even when Harper breaks it to her that the dogs working on the slide are specially trained, she wants him to take it.  

There are shovels, rakes, boots, rain gear by the pallet, mountains of food and water, shelves for storing the other donations. They overflow first one storage space, then another and another. A call goes out for duct tape: Searchers are taping themselves into their raincoats and pants to try to keep the mud out. So much arrives that the fire station will still be storing cases of it five months later. Eventually, Darrington will put out an announcement to the local news: Please stop sending donations. “We love you,” volunteer Laura Grimmer says. “But if we get one more toothbrush I don’t know what we’re going to do with it.” 

The Red Cross sets up a shelter in Darrington for people who’ve been driven from their homes, but it sits mostly empty—just one man stays, a stranger passing through from out of town. Everyone else would rather stay with friends, family, neighbors, and a place is made for each of them. 

Within hours of the slide, women were in the kitchen of the Darrington community center, cooking. They’re known as the funeral dinner ladies, or simply the grandmas, and they’ve been cooking for all the town’s funerals since residents hand built the community center from local lumber in the 1950s. Each has a signature dish, and in town, their food is deeply familiar: sweet-and-sour meatballs, Tarheel beans, macaroni salad, ham, biscuits with sausage gravy. At first, they knew little of what happened, only that this is what you do when there’s a crisis. Once it was clear how bad the slide was, they stood together in the kitchen and pinky swore to each other that they will not, under any circumstances, cry in the kitchen or while dishing out food. They will go outside if they need to, but they will be strong for the people they’re serving.

Later, the Red Cross tells the funeral dinner ladies they need to stop making food. The kitchen is registered for Red Cross use in emergencies, and the ladies, unschooled in the proper safety procedures, need to let the trained workers take over. Laura Grimmer watches fellow volunteer Janet Cabe, in her 80s and one of the original founders of the funeral ladies, respond curtly in her lingering North Carolina accent. “I’ve been cooking in this kitchen since 1955,” she says, “and I’ve not killed one person yet.” 

The community of the Stilly Valley, Grimmer decides, is just not what the officials from outside are accustomed to dealing with: “We were okay at levels that the government wasn’t used to having people be okay.” 

People show up at the fire stations before light each morning, sometimes waiting most of the day to be given something to do. While they wait, they scrub toilets, wash engines. The blue floor of the fire station in Darrington is scuffed nearly white where volunteers line up to sign in. They miss weeks of work while their bosses cover for them. Some simply quit their jobs.

The search goes on and on. Nine days after the slide, 24 bodies have been pulled out. Not everyone is intact, and identification is a challenge. Twenty-two people are still listed as missing. The grim work goes on.

On the 12th day, a dog is found on the slide, and though it’s only a dog, the joy is immense. “Thank God they found something alive!” thinks Trudy LaDouceur. It turns out, though, that the dog isn’t a slide survivor. He’s lost.

There’s a place where the remains of five homes are mixed together. Shaylah Dobbins finds a princess pillow, pieces of books. Then she finds a gym bag with the logo of the Darrington high school, the Loggers. She knows immediately that it belongs to Denver Harris, the 14-year-old boy listed as missing; she and her family are close friends with one of his cousins. She finds a Pee Chee with a school project inside. In the corner is written a date, period 2, and the name Denver Harris. It’s a story about how much he loves baseball. 

High school students, some of them Harris’s classmates, pack lunches for the searchers every day. In each of them they put a handwritten note of thanks or encouragement. Shaylah and Randy Dobbins have each broken down several times, but always separately, one being strong for the other. It’s one of the notes that does them both in together.

Every identification is at once a relief and a fresh pain. They come like punches, the news spreading quickly through the towns along the river. 

It goes on for five weeks. Forty-one people are found.

On April 28, there are still two people missing: Steve Hadaway, who was installing a satellite dish in Steelhead Haven on the morning of the mudslide, and Kris Regelbrugge, who was home with her husband (he was found dead three days after the slide). Officials call off the active search. But as summer arrives and the mud begins to dry, they keep returning, hoping for new access or new clues.

It’s exactly two months after the slide when John Hadaway gets a call from the sheriff’s office. A boot has been discovered near where his brother’s van was found. Steve Hadaway is returned to his family, wedding ring and all.

By the end of May, enough debris is cleared off 530 that cars can drive it again, which is a mixed blessing. The 90-minute detour from Darrington hasn’t been easy, but driving through the slide every day is worse. There are piles of debris pulled out of the slide awaiting disposal: tires, pieces of roofs, smashed water heaters, mangled cars, and, worst, scraps of clothing. There’s the scar on the mountainside, its edges as sharp as though someone scooped the earth away with a spoon. There are the broken, jagged trees and the endless gray mounds, like the frozen waves of a wild sea. There’s the knowledge of who was found there, and of who hasn’t been found. With Kris Regelbrugge out there, somewhere, the whole slide area still has the feel of a huge grave site.

The county hires a contractor to sift through every bit of dirt along the bottom 80 acres of the slide, where people and houses were swept. The mounds are numbered, then carefully disassembled with excavators. The dirt goes into a screening machine and along a conveyer belt so spotters can search through it. The ruined remains of houses will go to a landfill; the trees will be chipped into mulch and spread around the site. In the fall, the scar will be covered with wildflower seeds, ready to take root when the rains come again. Personal belongings will be decontaminated and sent to a reclamation facility, its location a closely guarded secret, for families to find them. The spotters will find stuffed animals and jewelry. They will find homemade quilts and Beanie Babies. They will find driver licenses, credit cards, legal documents. Twice, as they sift through dirt, the spotters will find the bones of deer. They will not find Kris Regelbrugge.

Search and rescue crews discover her body early on Tuesday morning, July 20, four months after the slide. They’ve been finding her belongings for days, and now they’ve finally found her. She’s in what’s left of her garage. It is 18 feet underground. 

People have hoped for this moment, prayed for it, planned for it. It will be easier, if only a little, to know that everyone has been accounted for, that they did their best for every last person. They’ve talked about what
they might do if or when the last victim is found.

All work stops. The flag on the limbless cedar tree, flying at half mast all these months, is lowered to the ground. And then it’s raised back up, clear to the top.

Flag2 aizuhm

Image: Mike Kane