Oso families secure final $4.8 million for permanent memorial

Dec 1, 2021, 2:15 PM
Oso memorial...
The wooden arch with the date of the Oso landslide. (Hanna Scott, KIRO Radio)
(Hanna Scott, KIRO Radio)

On March 22, 2014, people in the Steelhead Haven neighborhood were going about their normal routines. It was Saturday, so most kids were home. It was family time. Then, at 10:37 a.m., a mudslide destroyed the neighborhood, killing 43 people.

Tom and Karen Pszonka lost three generations of their family: their daughter Katie and her husband Shane; their 4-year-old and 6-year-old grandsons Wyatt and Hunter; and Shane’s parents, JuDee and Lou.

Dayn Brunner’s sister Summer Raffo was driving along State Route 530 to go care for horses when the wall of dirt, mud, and debris came barreling across the highway.

It was the deadliest landslide in U.S. history. It was also a shining moment for humanity as the Oso and Darrington communities came together to support each other, and saw an outpouring of support from all across the state, the country, and even the world.

Those families sought that same show of heart when they launched a fundraising campaign for the SR 530 Mudslide Memorial in 2018, a dream they came together to start making a reality shortly after the remains of the final victim, Stephen Hadaway, were identified some 60 days after the deadly landslide.

Over the next few years, the families worked tirelessly figuring out what they needed to do, coming to an agreement on a concept design that would not only honor their family members, but also the first responders and volunteers who spent weeks sifting through the toxic muck where a neighborhood once stood before it was wiped out in an instant.

Community pushes to build memorial to remember those lost in Oso slide

When they launched the fundraiser with the support of Snohomish County Parks and local media, including KIRO Radio, many survivors came forward to share their very painful stories of loss to help with the effort. But $6 million was a pretty big price tag, and eventually fundraising stalled out after the families were able to raise about a million dollars.

On Tuesday, the families got the official word that they had secured the remaining $4.8 million needed to erect that permanent memorial.

“The Snohomish County Council has unanimously agreed to fund the remaining dollar amounts that we need to build the permanent memorial for the Oso Slide Memorial,” said Brunner, who added it was that hard work of the families and the $1 million they’d secured on their own that made the county and the county council determined to help get them across the finish line.

“I proposed this funding because we need to tell the story of what happened on that tragic day in 2014,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said. “The entire Stillaguamish Valley is still recovering from the effects of the slide, and people travel from all over the world to see for themselves the magnitude of the loss. The SR 530 Slide Memorial will give families and our broader community a place to mourn, remember, and honor.”

For almost eight years, Snohomish County Parks and Recreation has been working with the families of victims, survivors, and first responders of the March 22, 2014, SR 530 Slide to design and build a permanent memorial at the site of the tragic event to honor those who were lost, those who survived, the responders, and the resilience of the surrounding communities.

“Everybody understands the importance of honoring the lives lost, honoring the commitment made by first responders, by volunteers — hundreds of volunteers wading through horrific conditions to locate folks and to bring people home to their family. So it’s just really amazing that we’ve gotten to this point now where we, as a county, can take this on to make sure we do the right thing by everyone,” said Tom Teigen, Snohomish County Parks and Recreation director.

“Families across Snohomish County are still hurting from their losses on that day,” Snohomish County Councilmember Nate Nehring said. “The SR 530 Slide Memorial will help people across the Stilly Valley to remember the heroes of that day and pay tribute to those we lost. It will also provide an opportunity for visitors to learn more about the resilient people of the Stilly Valley.”

The funding, unanimously approved by the Snohomish County Council, allows construction to begin on the memorial in 2022.

“We talked to folks from 9/11, Oklahoma City, and other memorials around the country — Columbine — and they all said there’s a real process to do this, to do it well, to invest time in the families and everybody involved, for responders,” Teigen explained. “And, they said, you should probably expect this to take about 10 years. So we’ve been feeling that pressure now as we close in on these next few years that we really have a couple construction seasons now to really implement the plan that’s been developed.”

The county announced the funding on Giving Tuesday intentionally to let those who’ve already donated or who have expressed interest in doing so know where things stand.

“Rock quarries and others that are interested in donating rock, or donating materials, or donating services, we’ve had several of the geo-tech services and engineering services that have been donated by companies — some of those firms have donated over $200,000 worth of time investment into it already,” Teigen said. “So we wanted to announce on Tuesday, on the national Giving Day, that, ‘Hey, we’re here. We’ve got the plan. We have the funding to get it done.'”

“We also are intent on setting up a maintenance endowment. We want to make sure that the site is preserved and protected and cared for in perpetuity,” he added.

You can find out more about the memorial design and the services and materials needed online here.

For the families, it’s a moment of gratitude and excitement.

“Oh, it feels so wonderful. It’s just amazing,” Brunner said.

“It’s been a long dream for this to be fully funded, and to be fully funded is just absolutely amazing. It’s heartwarming, made my eyes leak quite a bit. And I knew that this would be something that would take a very, very long time if we were trying to raise the money by ourselves, and for the county council to do this is just amazing. So we’re very excited,” Brunner added.

He says it’s huge for the family members who’ve been working on this memorial to honor their own lost loved ones, but the memorial is about much more than those lost.

“This will memorialize the 43 victims, all the ones that were lost, the survivors, the Steelhead Haven community that was wiped out, the first responders, the locals that came, and the ones that came in from around the U.S., as well as the geological event itself,” Brunner explained.

But he made it clear that it’s also about remembering his sister, Summer, and her memory.

“I drive through there almost on a daily basis. It hurts every time I go through there. It never changes. She’s on my mind every day, and literally where the memorial sits is just a few feet from where she took her last breath,” he said. “To have her legacy live on in Granite structure and words on a wall that talk about her, something that symbolizes her life, where she did take her last breath, means a lot to me. And it means a lot to me that the other 42 victims get that legacy as well and a place where they can be talked about and where they can be remembered.”

“It’s extremely important for me to make sure Summer’s legacy lives on, and that’s why I’m doing this because I want to make sure the world knows who she is,” Brunner said.

Families, community gather to remember victims of Oso mudslide

The complete memorial is expected to be finished and ready for the 10th anniversary of the Oso Slide, on March 22, 2024.

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Oso families secure final $4.8 million for permanent memorial