Remembering Oso family’s private paradise
It was their own private paradise. A home in the Steelhead Drive neighborhood along a secluded area of the Stillaguamish River where Tom and Karen Pszonka’s daughter Katie Ruthven lived with her husband Shane Ruthven, their 6- and 4-year-old sons, Hunter and Wyatt, and Shane’s parents Lou and Judee Vandenburg.
“It was just the most beautiful place, we would have relatives come up from Chicago from Texas from California we’d all be out on that swimming area that was just near their house and it was a fantastic place,” Tom said.
“All the birthdays were there,” added Karen, “you know, anytime the sun was out Katie would be like, hey come out and we’d have a little picnic and we’d sit at the swimming hole all day and it was like our own private little … just our family would be able to be there and it was not crowded and you were not fighting traffic and everything. It was … it was wonderful.”
For five years the family enjoyed that paradise with barbecues, fishing, and grandchildren. But it was about more than just their family in the Steelhead Drive neighborhood.
“It was a very close-knit community,” Karen said.
And Tom, Karen, and their daughter Jessica — Katie’s sister — expected that happiness to last a lifetime. But then everything changed on March 22, 2014, at 10:37 a.m.
A chunk of mountain looming over the Steelhead Drive neighborhood broke off, sending a wall of mud and debris roaring toward that tight-knit community, swallowing the neighborhood and destroying a one-mile stretch of SR 530.
Tom and Karen were headed to the farmers market in Marysville that morning and not overly concerned when they first heard about the slide even when they couldn’t get through to Katie or the others by phone. They figured it was a small slide that had taken out a cell tower. Tom, a retired Snohomish County Sheriff’s deputy with 30 years on the job, knew something was wrong when he called a buddy at search and rescue to find out what exactly had happened and was met with silence. Then, Katie’s sister Jessica Pszonka called a firefighter friend.
“All he said to us is that the whole area is gone. That’s all I remember, like him saying I’m sorry the whole area is gone … like it’s completely gone.”
But Karen held on to hope that first day, especially after getting word of a rescue.
“Oh my god. They said a family of six is coming in on a helicopter … to come to the emergency room. We could hear helicopters everywhere, so we got all excited thinking they made it there, they must have been on the roof or they must be … they found them. And it turned out not to be true and we went through that all night.”
And then, later that night, Tom got word Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary, a friend, was holding a press conference in Arlington about the slide and they went in search of answers.
“And he came out and he told me they’re all gone.”
Katie, Shane, their boys, Hunter and Wyatt, and Shane’s parents, Lou and Judee, were all gone. Six family members — three generations — gone.
It was a loss the Pszonka’s struggled to put into words, and one they say you never really figure out how to deal with.
More than four years later, the family struggles with it every day, but they try to focus on the good times, and can even laugh a little now when talking about their lost grandsons and nephews, Hunter and Wyatt.
“Hunter was super smart,” Tom said. “I mean, we’d be in Disneyland and grandma had a problem with her smartphone and he picked it up and just [solved the issue.]”
Karen chuckles when she remembers Hunter fixing her phone for her when he was just 5 years old.
And 4-year-old Wyatt had a nickname: Crash. Tom says, “he would crash into everything … every meal he would spill something. So we called him Crash.”
For Jessica, not having her sister and best friend Katie to go to the beach with and talk to as she goes through a divorce is difficult these days.
Tom and Karen struggle with the lost potential — the why of it all — especially with their son-in-law Shane, who had overcome substance abuse to become a wonderful husband and father and start a business with Katie.
They do their best to honor their lost loved ones. Tom has a portrait of Katie and her family tattooed on his leg. Because Katie and the boys loved Disneyland so much, Karen went with a tattoo of Cinderella’s castle.
The Everett tattoo artist who gave them the tattoos, not long after the slide, is now like family, Karen says.
“We talk to him all the time. We’re on Facebook with him all the time. That’s the only really amazing thing, to me at least, to come out of this to see how big our family has gotten now. There are so many people out there … I consider daughters and sons, they’re family now and will be forever, including all the people that lost somebody that we’re in our grief support together; we see them, over four years now. We see them all the time.”
They often visit the slide site where a temporary memorial with 43 trees covered in pictures and personal items stand for each of the 43 lives lost in the slide.
It’s a sacred site to the families, which is part of the reason getting a permanent memorial is so important to them.
For Jessica, it’s about healing.
“Each one of our family members finds peace at different spots,” she said. “The only place I find peace is up at the site … that’s where I feel closest to them. I don’t feel close to them at the cemetery because I just don’t feel like they belong there.”
But Tom says the permanent memorial is about more than the families.
“The memorial also, the story that it tells … people forget that it was the worst landslide, loss of life in the history of the United States. That’s a story that must be told.”
And Karen says the memorial will also honor the hundreds of first responders and volunteers who spent months sifting through toxic debris until they found remains of every last one of the 43 victims.
“You find yourself soul searching, like is it worth it to have them out there, but they were all so determined to not leave there until they found every last one,” Karen said. “And for our family, it took almost two months before they found all of our family.”
It took four months to find all of the slide victims.
The families have helped design the permanent memorial and are working with Snohomish County, KIRO Radio, and other supporters to get it built. The goal is to raise $6 million in time to start work on the permanent memorial next March 22, the fifth anniversary of the Oso slide.