Families, community gather Monday to remember victims of Oso mudslide

Mar 22, 2021, 5:51 AM | Updated: 3:04 pm

“We are love Related,” reads a wooden sign that was hung on the gate Monday that marks the entrance of what used to be the Steelhead Haven neighborhood in the small community of Oso.

Ron Thompson arrived to hang it shortly before the remembrance ceremony Monday that marked the 7th anniversary of the Oso Slide.

On March 22, 2014, it was a beautiful sunny day. Many in the Steelhead Haven neighborhood just off SR 530 in the small community of Oso were enjoying that Saturday morning at home or visiting loved ones. Others were doing work on their homes, like installing a satellite dish or out doing weekend errands as Thompson and his wife Gail were, or were out doing weekend errands. It was a seemingly typical spring Saturday morning. Until it wasn’t.

At 10:37 a.m., as unknowing families, friends, and workers went about enjoying their day, a massive wall of mud, trees, and debris came roaring down the hillside without warning, killing dozens in the neighborhood. It buried others who were driving along SR 530 at precisely the wrong time.

For those of us who covered the tragedy of the 2014 Oso landslide, it’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since the deadliest landslide in U.S. history sent a mountain side barreling into the small town of Oso, nestled in between Arlington and Darrington, wiping out the small Steelhead Haven neighborhood.

For those whose loved ones were among the 43 souls lost that day, it’s impossible to believe it’s been seven years.

“It’s seven years. It doesn’t seem like it, seems like it happened yesterday to me. It doesn’t seem like it’s been seven years at all,” said Dayn Brunner, whose sister, 36-year-old Summer Ruffo died when the slide slammed into her car as she drove down Highway 530 on her way to shoe a horse.

Brunner and his young sons sifted through the mud and debris for hours that first day hoping to find Summer. She was finally located on the fifth day of the recovery effort, her arms still clutching the steering wheel of her car.

For Jessica Pszonka, March 22, 2014, would bring truly unimaginable loss, as the slide took her six family members.

Pszonka lost her sister Katie Ruthven and her brother-in-law Shane. She also lost her 6- and 4-year-old nephews, Hunter and Wyatt, Shane’s mother Judee Vandenburg, and Shane’s stepfather of 30 years, Lou.

Pszonka and Brunner, along with others who survived the slide and lost loved ones, are themselves family now, and every year they gather for a remembrance ceremony on March 22, as they continue fundraising efforts to erect a permanent memorial at the site. It’s difficult and emotional every year, but Pszonka and Brunner say they made promises.

“You know, COVID put a monkey wrench into a lot of things, as you know, but me and Jessica have always promised each other, and I promised Summer, she promised Katie, and Shane, and Hunter and Wyatt that she would be there every year no matter what, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Brunner explained.

That’s exactly what both did Monday, as they returned to the spot where they had lost so much along with dozens who know their pain. They gathered with them under a white tent where the homes of their loved ones used to stand, in the shadow of the broken mountainside that took their lives 7 years ago.

Dayn, flanked by members of the South County Fire Honor Guard, led the remembrance ceremony – as he does every year – to honor the 43 lost, the 11 survivors, the community that came together to help, and the firefighters and other first responders who gave so much of themselves during what became a months-long recovery effort to locate the remains of every single person who passed away that day.

“Coming out here it’s kind of a bittersweet. It’s good to see everybody, but it’s just a sad way to go about it,” explained John Hadaway, whose brother Steven was installing a satellite dish on the roof of one of the homes believed to have been among the first hit by the slide. Steven Hadaway’s remains were the 42nd of the 43 recovered months after the slide.

John Hadaway brings his entire family to the remembrance ceremony every year, including his young grandson who knows just how important the day is and even reminded grandpa it was coming up this year.

It’s difficult for Hadaway, who fought back tears during Monday’s service.

“You just learn to adapt. I do anyway,” Hadaway said. “You can’t put it in words. It’s just another, another one of those tragedies you learn to deal with. The pain never goes away.”

It was clear on the faces of those who came to honor their loved ones just how difficult this annual event is.
Brunner teared up multiple times as he addressed the crowd – the only one of the family members to address the crowd this year.

Pszonka stood steps away with her remaining family and friends forced to once again be at this haunting place.

“It’s hard,” she said, noting that she had earlier gone and freshened up the area around the trees for her family the line on the front of the site along with the other trees – one for each of the 43 lost.

Ron Thompson, who hung the new wooden sign on the front gate, was at the ceremony with his wife, Gail, and their children. The couple lived on the Steelhead Haven community and lost almost everything in the slide. The couple had left to head to town about 10 minutes before the slide.

Ron always has a huge smile when he brings the new sign every year.

“It’s part of my healing,” Thompson said.

He already knows what next year’s sign will say, but was not about to share the surprise with this reporter.

The day was somber to be sure, as Joel “Chappy” Johnson, the Oso Fire Chaplain who helped the local crews through that devastating day and all of the agonizing days that followed, and delivers the prayer at the remembrance ceremony every year.

“Some people might type it down, read it, write it, I think about it. Pray about it before I get here about the words that I should say, and try to have it come from the heart as best as possible,” Johnson explained. “So it’s a little different every year.”

Johnson and the South County Fire Honor Guard led one of the most emotional parts of the service with the tolling of the bells as the each alternated reading the 43 names of those lost, before Johnson closed with the names of the survivors.

As the ceremony came close to a close, at 10:37 a.m. there was a full minute of silence to mark the precise moment the slide came down.

There were hugs and tears all throughout the crowd in one of the most emotional moments of the service, as a member of the Honor Guard played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes, before one final prayer from Johnson.

After the ceremony, the families of the 43 spend will much of the day together and then gather at a nearby ranch in the evening for a private dinner, before returning to the site where they light 43 lanterns they release in honor of their lost loved ones every year.

“Every year we get there, the clouds move, the rain stops, and we are able to get the lanterns up,” Pszonka said. “Then there was one year it literally immediately started pouring right after the last lantern went up. It gives me chills.”

“That is my thing. The lanterns are the best. It’s just our way of reaching out to them. I will never not do that,” she added.

You can find out more about the Oso Slide Memorial efforts here.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Families, community gather Monday to remember victims of Oso mudslide