The Oso firefighters who refused to leave anyone in the mud

Sep 11, 2018, 7:21 AM | Updated: 7:35 am
Tim and Willy Harper. (Courtesy of the Harpers and Jessica Pszonka)
Tim's tattoo is of a makeshift memorial rescuers erected in the days after the slide. (Hanna Scott, KIRO Radio)

Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper was about to mow his lawn the morning of the slide when he got a call about something in the road. He told his wife he’d be right back.

“And I came over the hill … and you couldn’t really tell what was going on,” Harper said. “It was just a tarp in the road and it kind of looked like some mud. It wasn’t registering that I couldn’t see what wasn’t there, or what used to be there. There were a couple of civilians parked, and we get out and we’re trying to figure out what’s going on and then all of a sudden we hear somebody call out from the mud, ‘Hey, there’s a baby in here.'”

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The civilians ran in. Harper and two other Oso firefighters followed.

“It was really weird to walk out there because it was like soup,” Harper said. “You’d take a step and you’d think it was solid and then you’d sink up to your arm pits and dig yourself out,” Willy said. “I don’t know, maybe we went out about 500 feet or so and there was a gal there, Amanda and her baby, Duke, who were basically in a tree. (It) was now ground level, but basically up in a tree under a couch and stuck in there.”

One of the civilians was a friend of Harper’s, a logger. He grabbed some chainsaws and they got to work cutting Amanda and baby Duke out.

“Once we got her and the baby out, the baby couldn’t breathe so we did CPR on him, and then once he started coming around, we sent somebody out with the baby … But Amanda had a broken leg, her face was all messed up, and stuff from going through this debris,” Harper said.

Amanda and Baby Duke survived, thanks to those efforts in the first few hours after the slide, when Harper says they still didn’t fully understand what had happened. It quickly became clear.

Help donate to the slide memorial fund

“One of the other firefighters crawled up on top of this log pile and looked out and he came back down and I was like, ‘You know what’s going on? What do you see?'” Harper said. “And he says, ‘Nothing, there’s nothing there.'”

By this time Harper’s brother, Fire Lieutenant Tim Harper, had heard the call and rushed back to Oso.

That first night Willy Harper, his brother Tim, and the hometown Oso fire crew led evacuation efforts, and were eventually told to evacuate themselves. They refused.

“That night was probably the worst,” Harper said, fighting back tears.

You can’t train to lose everything

Their captain at the time, Seth Jefferds, was there. He had just lost his home, his wife, and his 4-month-old baby granddaughter in the slide.

“His family had been taken and we basically spent the night listening to him wail, and scream, and cuss, and curse,” Harper said.

Thankfully, the Oso crew had just met a chaplain out for his first assignment, Joel, who is now a best friend to the brothers affectionately known as Chappy.

“We’ve done a lot of training,” Tim Harper said. “But the emotions of one of your friends that just lost of everything — you can’t train for that. And Joel will tell you, he can’t train for that, but he was that guy.”

Tim will forever be grateful for Joel being there that first night as chaplain.

“Because what could we say to a man that has just lost everything,” Tim said.

The next day Willy Harper stayed at the Oso firehouse and organized volunteer efforts. His brother Tim, was in the debris field.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is two, three months previous, me and Seth [Jefferds] were driving the rescue around as Santa Clause,” Tim said. “You know, in Steelhead. We had a connection with every single person that was there and we’d done this for years and years. I couldn’t not be on site. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I didn’t care. You know, I had to be there. There was no other option.”

Things you can’t un-see

Tim and Snohomish County firefighters led the teams of volunteers into the debris field. There were hundreds of them from day one, including loggers who cleared the field of trees so search crews could eventually find all 43 victims.

“And these guys would stand, I mean waist deep and dig through — and they would — they would see things a person shouldn’t have to see in their lifetime, especially if they didn’t sign up for it,” Tim said. “I can honestly say I’m OK with adults — I feel like we’ve lived our lives, at least a majority of it. And when it’s our time, it’s our time. But I’ll tell you what, the first child I pulled out of there, that broke my heart,” he said.

“It’s a whole other level,” Willy Harper added.

Some of those volunteers pulled out after the things they saw, and with apologies, said they couldn’t come back. Volunteers out of the Oso firehouse logged at least 8,000 hours. There were many other locations that logged many hours, too. Willy Harper worries for them.

“There are people that have come to us, even this year – four years later – that said, ‘I think I need to go talk to somebody. I’m not getting better,'” Willy Harper explained. “I haven’t had any professional help. I spent six months after the slide with Chappy and so I feel like I’ve talked a lot of it out, but even to this day, I definitely have issues. One of my biggest fears after the slide was realizing that there are so many people that could be having issues for the rest if their life that we have no idea.”

Oso Memorial

It’s for the hundreds of volunteers, the first responders, the lost families, and survivors that Willy Harper wants to see this memorial built for. He wants this incredible story of tragedy and humanity to live on.

“It’s something that has to happen,” Willy Harper said. “You know all these things happen in history; Mount St. Helens and these earthquakes, and all these things happen, and it’s so easy to forget about them outside of your own community. Obviously, we’re never going to forget, but we don’t want anybody to forget, ever. And to be able to remember the people that were lost and recognize the people that gave forth these efforts, that’s huge.”

Tim Harper says it’s long overdue.

“I feel like we’ve waited too long to do this,” Tim said. “I mean, we’re turning the corner on five years here pretty quick. I’ve personally worked up there [with Jessica Pszonka, who lost six family members in the slide] packing wheelbarrows on top of wheelbarrows of beauty bark and weeding and picking up garbage and making sure that people understand … that is hallowed ground. And I’m sorry, but 43 little trees on the side of the road does not give justice to what was lost there.”

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The Oso firefighters who refused to leave anyone in the mud