Public face of Oso slide shares story to help raise money for memorial

Nov 12, 2018, 7:22 PM
John Hadaway's photo of the mudslide at Oso. (John Hadaway)
(John Hadaway)

Travis Hots is now Snohomish County’s Fire Chief for District 22 in Getchell.

On March 22, 2014, the day of the slide, he was the Arlington Heights Fire Chief, a job he’d held just 3 months at that point. Despite his years of experience and extensive training, it was a job that was about to test him in ways he’d never imagined.

That morning, he was in a wildfire training class and got a page about a swift water rescue. Those calls are risky, so he decided to respond to support the team and headed out of Arlington toward Darrington.

“As I was traveling up SR 530 I started to hear the radio traffic that was taking place in the units that had arrived on the scene first and were working,” Hots said.

“I could tell that there (were) rescues that were in progress, people were hearing people screaming and yelling for help…that type of thing, so I thought, well there must be something fairly significant up this way…but nothing could have prepared my imagination for what I was about to encounter when I got there.”

Hots heard radio traffic indicating it was some sort of slide, and imagined it was in a large area where there had been some slides in the past. That was concerning because he knew it was a pretty large area, but that was not where the slide was.

“As I arrived down on the actual slide, it was substantially larger than I had imagined — in fact, it was so large that I actually wasn’t even sure that some of the big piles of sand that were 70, 80 feet high were part of it. I thought it was a like a separate construction project maybe that was taking place you there. So, the whole thing was really hard to get your head around and comprehend,” Hots recalled.

Learn how you can help victims of the Oso slide

From the west side of the slide, Hots couldn’t see where the actual slide was, but he knew it was huge. He didn’t see just how huge until he got back to the Arlington command post and watched images taken by the sheriff’s helicopter.

“There’s all these addresses with a road but the actual view of what they were seeing in the video, or what we were seeing in the video, just showed this huge pile of mud. I realized the severity and the complexity of this whole incident was substantially larger than I had first thought it was,” Hots said.

Chief Hots knew he and the local teams could not manage, it on their own so he called for an incident management team.

As the incident management team arrived, so did the media.

It was decided that Chief Hots — who has no background as a public information officer — would be the one to talk to the press.

He was the public face of the slide for the first week, holding multiple press conferences a day as local, national, and international media converged on Oso, while families and friends anxiously awaited news about their missing loved ones.

“It was a very difficult situation, because you knew emotions were running very strong and hard with people that were literally sitting on the edge if their seat waiting for answers, you know it’s their friends, it’s their relatives, their loved ones that we’re out there trying to find,” Hots said.

In the initial days, the number of missing was more than 100, due to reports from people who couldn’t get a hold of their loved ones who may or may not have been in the area. It ended up being a smaller number, but it took days of investigation to figure that out, all while the media and public became impatient.

In one of Hots final press briefings, when he simply did not have any new information to offer but felt compelled to at least show up for the daily update, he became visibly emotional as the media lashed out in frustration over the lack of new details about the missing and the dead.

But Hots says that wasn’t the hardest part.

“One of the hardest things that I have found in this business is when we’re dealing with disaster, or death, is dealing with the people that are still alive, the family members and the friends… and having to look people in the eye and tell them, you know, ‘this is a dire, grave situation we’re doing the very best we can but the outcome is likely not going to be very good.’ That’s tough because you could see the hope in every one of these people’s eyes – they are just sitting on the edge of their seat just waiting for you to tell them something that’s going to change what’s going to take place for them,” Hots explained.

It is a something that haunted Hots for months after the slide.

“I’ll be honest with you, I have never experience post-traumatic stress in my entire career of 25 years doing this… until this particular incident happened. I would not be able to fall asleep at night, and [when I] finally did from exhaustion, I would wake up every night at 2:30 in the morning and I’d just lay there and I’d look at the ceiling fan in the dark, and I would wonder and I would worry, ‘is this a new normal for me?’ When the last person was found…it was like…it was like the flick of a light switch,” Hots said.

Hots knows there are others who responded to the Oso slide who still struggle with their experiences all these years later.

That’s one of the reasons he says it’s vital to get a permanent memorial park built at the slide site, and replace the 43 trees that have served as a temporary memorial.

“You know I stop at the current memorial that they have there, I wouldn’t say every time I go up there but I’d say a super-majority of the time, I do stop and I get out… reflect a little bit about what took place there,” an emotional Hots explained.

“I think it’s healing. And I think a proper memorial there is something that’s needed,” Hots said.

The families of those lost helped design the new memorial, which includes multiple areas to honor those lost, their loved ones, the survivors, the first responders, and the community that came together to do everything they could during a time of great tragedy, something Hots says gave him strength during those initial days.

“It warmed my heart. You know that was the shining light in this whole disaster where there was so much devastation and tragedy and so many families had lost so much. But when you see people coming together to help one another out… it made you feel good,” Hots recalled.

The memorial is also meant to be a place where visitors from around the world and local students can come to learn about what happened there similar to memorials placed at other disaster sites.

The goal is to raise enough money to build the memorial and hold a ground blessing ceremony on the 5th anniversary of the slide, on March 22nd, 2019.

You can find out more about the memorial design and how to donate here.

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Public face of Oso slide shares story to help raise money for memorial