Finding Summer: A brother’s mission to find his sister after the Oso slide
A heroic brother was determined to find everyone lost in the tragic Oso landslide in 2014, including his sister.
Summer Raffo was 36, happy, and loved her life with a tight knit family, according to her brother Dayn Brunner. He says she was a beautiful Tom Boy.
“The hardest working woman I’ve ever met,” Dayn said. “She earned the nickname Uncle Summer. She didn’t wear make-up very often and as kid, you know she played with Tonka trucks and she had football gear and she had two older brothers, myself and Jason, and we taught her a lot of that stuff and she had to be tough. She was the best Tom Boy ever.”
Dayn says she also loved her side job shoeing horses, which is where she was headed the morning of March 22, 2014. She left her home in Darrington and headed down Highway 530 toward Arlington at precisely the wrong time.
Summer was extremely close with her mother who was in Puyallup that day. Mom heard about the slide and called her oldest son Dayn, asking him to go find out what happened. She was worried.
Find your sister
The family had lived in Darrington for decades and knew just about everybody so Dayn used those connections to start calling around to find out what had happened. He then grabbed his two teenage sons and some shovels and drove as close to the scene as he could, but they were pulling local crews back because of flooding.
The frantic calls from his mom kept coming every 10 minutes.
“She goes ‘Well, you need to get down there and you need to find out more about it, where she’s at,'” Dayn recalled. “And I said, ‘Mom I can’t. They’re not letting us go through.’ And she goes, ‘Dayn, listen you’ve got to find her.’ And I started getting a little irritated and I thought she was just overreacting at that point and I said, ‘What do want me to do?’ And she goes, ‘Go find your sister.'”
Mom had a bad feeling. She knew that Summer had left Darrington just minutes before the slide and would very likely have been on SR 530 when it hit.
After taking time to go bring food and supplies to local first responders, who had been pushed back, Dayn and his teenage boys decided they couldn’t wait. They drove around the barricades and found a way into the debris field.
“We walked in,” he said. “It took us three hours to go a half a mile. You’d walk, and then the debris field — it was mud, dirt rocks, buildings, debris all over. We walked past bodies, some of them were covered up with sheets, some were not. But none of them were Summer and we kept going and you’d think it would be sturdy, but you’d fall down and you’d be chest deep into this debris and mud so then we’d just help each other out and we kept going.”
They kept going for hours, into the night, making it all the way to the other side of the slide, where the Steelhead Haven neighborhood used to be.
“No one else was there,” Dayn recalled. “The mountain was still coming down, it was the most eeriest thing. I could hear moaning and screaming the entire time we were in there and it’s not that I didn’t want to go help whoever was in distress, but I was not looking … I was looking for Summer and that was my mission … I yelled her name like six times in a row. My boys just started balling.”
The Oso search effort
They headed back and were at a community meeting in the morning, frustrated with the lack of activity by official first responders who were still pulled back because of safety and flooding concerns.
Dayn took some heat for being out in the debris field, but he didn’t care. For the next several days he fought with everyone from local crews to FEMA for the ability for him and his oldest son, 16-year-old Riley, to be able to stay in and be a part of the search teams. They won those battles and were continually a part of the search. In fact, Dayn was the one who showed them how to use the local logging roads to get to the slide zone and was crucial in helping crews figure out where to look for victims because he knew where all the houses used to be.
Dayn had successfully lobbied FEMA, with help from Deputy Incident Commander Gregg Sieloff, for he and his son Riley to be allowed to return to the search. On day five, Dayn got a call from Summer’s friend Rhonda Cook who had also been in the debris field searching for Summer.
“I said to Riley, that was Rhonda, she thinks they found Summer’s car,” Dayn said. “I grabbed his hand I said are you ready for this? Because how do you prepare, you know, your son for that? He’s already seen so much stuff, but now it’s going to be somebody he knows and loves and respects. And he grabbed my hand back and he started crying and he said, ‘Dad I’ve been ready for five days. Let’s go get her.”
They got to the site where Rhonda and others at the scene had found Summer’s car. Her body was still inside. The search crews had waited to allow Dayn to get her body out.
“She still had her hands on the steering wheel,” Dayn said. “Her foot was on the gas pedal. She was just entombed in … in mud. So we just kept digging by hand just as carefully as possible. When we finally got her freed up. I reached down around her shoulders and we got her out, cleaned her up as best we could.”
Everyone else stepped away to give Dayn and Riley a moment and he says Riley just lost it.
“I’ve never seen that kid cry so hard,” Dayn said. “He just lost it and then he goes, ‘Dad, you did the best you could. You got her out. You promised her you’d get her out. And I said, ‘Yeah, but she’s mad at me because it took me five days to find her.'”
Investigators would later tell Dayn that Summer may have survived had she left seven seconds earlier or later.
As summer’s body was airlifted out of the debris field, Dayn says the 200 or so crew members out in the area all took off their hard hats and stood on top of their machines in silence in an emotional tribute.
After taking time to be with family and for Summer’s service, Dayn was back in the debris field searching for victims.
“I mean they would all look at me like why are you still here? Why are you still here, your sister’s out, why are you still here? And I said, ‘Yeah, but there’s still people here that need to come home that need to get out.'”
Dayn was in the slide zone for 67 days and was crucial in the effort to find all 43 victims killed in the slide.
For him, the planned Oso memorial is important to teach people about what happened there, honor the community that came together, and the volunteers and first responders who never gave up. But it is also for him and his family, especially his mom who wants to go to the Serenity Trail that will be part of the memorial.
“She wants to go there and reflect and talk to Summer and that’s her biggest thing that’s important to her,” Dayn said. “And she knows that it’s a big thing for me and so she knows, ‘Dayn, this is how you’re healing and this is … this is how it’s going to help you and that part of it is helping me.'”