Six months later: Oso revisited

Oso memorial from the left - 4th, Chief Willie Harper, Oso; 5th, Chief Steve Mason, Edmonds. Photo by Bob Mitchell.
Oso memorial includes from the left: 4th, Chief Willie Harper, Oso; 5th, Chief Steve Mason, Edmonds. Photo by Bob Mitchell.

Edmonds resident, Robert “Bob” Mitchell, M.D., recently provided an update on the Oso tragedy and the Sept. 21 memorial service.

Suddenly, tears streaming down my face, the tire noise of my Nissan Xterra hushed; the pavement abruptly changed to that newly laid, smooth, fresh, dark black surface all drivers recognize. Just as suddenly I found myself driving right through the heart of the Mudslide “field”, now completely barren, once populated and home to countless trees, the cool, winding north fork of the Stillaguamish river, dwellings and families; the agonizing gash and residual scar in the hill appeared to my left, nothing but dirt and emptiness all around me. I slowed my truck to a crawl as I continued through the area, remembering.

On my right, way back from the highway still stood the remnants of a lonely, stark evergreen, now just a 70 ft. wood pole stripped clean of branches by the slide, with a large American flag still fluttering high in the easy breeze, an inspiration even now, six months later. That flag had been the one constant throughout the entire recovery timeframe. The landscape had changed hourly with the ongoing rescues and searching. That flag became a symbol of the “American community” converging to lend a hand with the Mudslide response effort.

You don’t have to have been in military combat to return to a battlefield and relive all the sights, sounds and smells. Yesterday found me driving to and attending a six-month memorial service at the site of the SR530 Oso Mudslide, my first return since May. This particular Sunday morning ceremony was dedicated to the many first responders who helped in the rescue and recovery. Monday there would be another private one for the families of the 43 victims.

Having helped intermittently at and around the slide “site” over an 8-week period, I did not expect to feel any deep emotions. As I turned onto SR530 in Arlington, I immediately recalled the dark dampness and chill of those late nights and early mornings in March, April and May. I had made that same turn many times. While driving I became curiously aware of the beauty surrounding me, like the sun coming from behind a cloud; the greenery, the mountains, the horizons. Funny, I did not recall the beauty of this area. I realized then that I had not seen it before even though I had driven this same route so many times. The “response” mission had fogged, yet tightly focused my concentration blinding me to the surroundings.

Listening to the somber sounds of “Blue Bayou” playing on the Linda Ronstadt CD I purchased along with my “grande” at Starbucks earlier that morning, I continued on my return journey; it seemed to take forever. Getting closer I began to recognize subtle landmarks, although mostly gone, blending into newly regrown foliage. The Oso fire station lay deserted, devoid of all the hubbub of traffic, media vans, responders, volunteers and emergency vehicles. Up ahead was where the sheriff’s roadblock had been, his vehicle parked sideways partially blocking the highway, blue and red lights flashing in the rain-soaked dawn. I could still see his face; stern, yet seemingly on the verge of tears under his “Smokey-the-bear” hat covered in clear plastic to shield it from the rain. I remember my exact thoughts those days, such contradictory appearances in so many. To my left and right as I drove onward lay the many previously rutted, muddy staging areas for responders and machines, all re-transformed to the beautiful fields and clearings they were before that tragic day only last March. In my mind’s eye I could distinctly see all the human activity, trucks, tractors, and earthmovers, helicopters taking off and landing; and in my mind’s ear hear all the noise. My eyes began to water.

I turned onto and navigated the winding Seattle City Light Access Road, a narrow, make-shift “thoroughfare” traversing the outer perimeter of the recovery area. Worn, widened and seemingly wounded by hordes of emergency vehicles during those tragic weeks that previous spring, it now stood deserted, partially paved and cindered. This muddy track had served as the major entry point for vehicles and personnel to the site, responders with radios strategically spaced, waving traffic flow along its 2-mile extent.

Finding a place to park, I carefully walked out onto the barren terrain, undulating, almost like frost-heaved ground-scape now covered with cedar shavings and chips. I joined a small throng of about 50, a mix of responders and their families. At the base of that solitary flag-waving tree, I saw uniformed firefighters, arms extended, pointing and closely leaning in to quietly whisper, some tearfully, to their loved ones, detailing what had happened here. As I stood there in silence, turning completely around I could see and hear once again the workers, more than 700 each day, tirelessly shoveling, digging, sawing, chopping, often crying and praying.

The white-gloved Honor Guard “presented arms” in respectful slow motion as the flag was lowered halfway down the tall, branchless tree. A moment of silence was hailed by Oso Fire Chief Willie Harper at exactly 10:37, marking the instant a massive mudslide had altered lives forever. Long-standing tradition in the fire service, a Scottish bagpiper mournfully piped “Amazing Grace” in the silence and sunshine of the morning; wet faces and sniffling all around me. Solemn words were spoken with praise given to God and thanks to the many first responders while addressing the need to carry on with life. A roar erupted from over my right shoulder causing me to look upward as a single F-18 fighter jet flew over.

Not far from where I was standing, a three-legged hunting dog and slide survivor named Blue wagged his tail excitedly, happily straining at his leash almost personifying the need to move forward. His owner shared with me later that Blue had been found in a tree, his right rear leg denuded of skin and muscle, barely attached to the hip socket. Now fully recovered and enrolled in “Therapy Dog” training, he will soon be visiting hospitals and nursing homes spreading his “recovery” message. In stark contrast, I now heard in my mind’s memory the intermittent, frantic, insistent barking of the “cadaver dogs” that would cut through the misting rainfall like a sharp, cold knife loudly alerting all in the valley of their discoveries of remains.

Speaking with a few I recognized from those past, dark days, I deliberately retreated to the safe haven of my truck. With Linda Ronstadt again singing softly, I retraced my drive. I could only hope the many challenges encountered and overcome at that site during the many wearying days and weeks of the rescue and recovery would be translated to changes and adaptations by the response communities and the state. Time will tell.

Photo information from Bob Mitchell: Almost a mile away you can see the immense scarred cavity of devastation in the hill. It is so hard to imagine the force generated by all that earth and debris moving at over 60mph in less than 60 seconds across this valley, wiping out everything in its path – 43 souls, 49 homes, the highway, leaving only a branchless tree to stand guard and offer testimony. 

Robert Mitchell is a leader in community disaster preparedness, For more information on building a resilient community in Edmonds, see the Facebook page and news articles here.

3 Replies to “Six months later: Oso revisited”

  1. Thanks for this piece. I am a frequent visitor to the area and was horrified to hear of what happened, and when I was finally able to roll through on 530 (just a day after the road was opened to the public) the devastation took my breath away. So many lives wiped out and so many more changed forever.


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