‘Oso Strong’ memorial completed 10 years after deadly landslide

Mar 22, 2024, 7:19 PM | Updated: Mar 25, 2024, 11:46 am

A decade has passed since a disastrous landslide killed 43 people without warning in the small town of Oso, Washington. On Friday, survivors, first responders, and families of the victims joined Gov. Jay Inslee, state and local leaders and the surrounding communities to dedicate the SR 530 Slide Memorial or the “Oso Strong” Memorial.

Dayn Brunner, whose sister Summer was one of those killed, spoke at the ceremony. “Today marks 10 years. Ten years. Seems like yesterday, doesn’t it?”

The two-acre memorial site sits at the foot of the deadly slide’s path is meant to be a symbol of hope, forged by unthinkable tragedy. It comes after a years-long effort to raise the money needed to complete it. At Friday’s ceremony, those in attendance observed a moment of silence at 10:37 a.m., the moment the hillside collapsed and tore through the Steelhead Haven neighborhood. The roaring, deadly wave of mud and trees smashed into homes at the speed of a car on the freeway. It wiped away 49 homes and dozens of lives in seconds.

Many of the victims — retirees, grandparents, military veterans, office workers, young families — were simply at home on a weekend. Others, such as the three contractors working on a house, just happened to be there. Someone was installing a satellite TV dish. A plumber was servicing a hot-water tank.

Brunner was one of the first to begin frantic search efforts for his sister. Summer Raffo, 36, was driving on State Route 530 on her way to shoe a horse for a client. Seconds earlier or later, she would have been fine. Instead, the slide buried her, ripping the roof off her blue Subaru.

He and hundreds of others began digging through the millions of tons of sand, mud, and debris— some with their bare hands.

“I had to tell my mom, I couldn’t find her,” Brunner said, choking back tears. “And she started crying and she said, ‘Dayn, you just need to find your sister, go find your sister.'”

He finally did, four days later.

“We had to cut some of the car away to get her out,” he told KIRO Newsradio. His voice trembled as he told the story he has repeated hundreds of times. “Her foot was, was still on the accelerator. Both hands were on the steering wheel and got her down. We just pulled her out, got her cleaned off and laid her on a blanket and everybody left,  and I got to say my goodbyes.”

An Oso survivor tells his story

Eleven people were rescued in the hours after the slide. Tim Ward was one of them. But Brandy, his wife of 37 years, did not survive.

Tim said he and Brandy heard rumbling inside their home on an otherwise quiet Saturday morning.

As the ground began to move beneath them, “My wife was at one end of the house and I was at the other and as she got close to touching my hand and I got close to touching her hand the slurry of earth came up around us … she disappeared, I heard her call my name and that was it … then I said a prayer and that’s the last I remember.”

Previous Oso landslide coverage: ‘Don’t forget our history’

In an extraordinary effort, teams that included 900 responders from near and far plus volunteers — firefighters and police, military members and local loggers — helped find every victim, often slogging through what they came to call “the pile” as rain fell. They would silence their chainsaws and other machinery whenever they discovered bodies. The official search efforts ended in April, but Brunner says he and others in the community refused to give up until every person was recovered and returned to their families. They found the last set of remains in July, in what federal and local officials deemed a “remarkable” achievement.

The scope of the tragedy reverberated across the country. On April 3, President Barack Obama declared the mudslide a major disaster, after a request from Inslee. Later that month, Obama visited the collapsed hillside and met with survivors, victims’ families, and first responders coping with unimaginable loss.

“The country is thinking about all of you and have been throughout this tragedy,” the president said after viewing the devastation. “While very few Americans have ever heard of Oso before the disaster struck, we’ve all been inspired by the incredible way that the community has come together and shown the love and support that they have for each other in ways large and small.”

In the aftermath of what remains the worst landslide disaster in U.S. history, Jessica Pszonka made a promise to herself, to her bereft parents and to her late sister, who was buried along with two young sons, her husband and in-laws.

“My sister was an amazing person. She was selfless,” said Pszonka. “She was the glue that kept our whole family together.”

A long journey to get to the memorial dedication

Brunner, Pszonka and other family members spent years working on the idea of a permanent memorial — where relatives and visitors could feel the presence of their lost loved ones and reflect on the serenity that drew people to Oso, as well as the forces that left an immense scar in the forested Cascade Mountain foothills.

But the journey to get to Friday’s dedication ceremony was an arduous one for many whose lives changed instantly on Mar. 22, 2014.

“It was definitely not a fun process to go through with the fundraising,” Pszonka remarked.

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Snohomish county officials presented the survivors and victims’ families with a plan to honor all who were lost. But the price tag, estimated to be several million dollars, presented a serious challenge.

“We held a couple of fundraisers and I think we made $150,000,” Pszonka told KIRO Newsradio. “For a small community was a lot, but it wasn’t enough. And my parents were very discouraged. And they’re like, this at this rate, this thing is not going to be built in our lifetime. And I was like, you are wrong. I will make it work.”

A temporary memorial went up six months after the slide, made up of 43 trees for each of the lives lost, covered in pictures and personal items placed by loved ones. In 2018, rows of bronze mailboxes followed.

But community members wanted a permanent tribute. They held fundraisers, lobbied lawmakers for money and attended planning committee meetings. They wanted to honor not just the lives lost, but the community response.

Image: KIRO Newsradio was in Oso on the 10th anniversary of the landslide that killed 43 people on Friday, March 22, 2024. The SR 530 Slide Memorial was dedicated after a years-long effort to complete it.

KIRO Newsradio was in Oso on the 10th anniversary of the landslide that killed 43 people on Friday, March 22, 2024. The SR 530 Slide Memorial was dedicated after a years-long effort to complete it. (Photo: Kate Stone, KIRO Newsradio)

After years of work, they were able to gather the approximately $5 million needed to realize the dream, aimed at helping the Oso community rebuild. Construction began in 2022 and was completed shortly before Friday’s dedication ceremony.

Exploring the ‘Oso Strong’ Memorial

A walkthrough of the memorial travels through the community’s past, present, and hopes for the future. A wooden archway at the entrance bears the date and time that so many lives in Oso changed forever. Beyond it is a paved pathway, and a concrete courtyard with a large bronze statue in the center. The ravaged hillside is clearly visible in the backdrop.

Each feature and design choice within the memorial is intentional, to both mark the devastation of that day while forging a path forward.

“The memorial site itself has four main items. You come in and it talks about the geological event itself, the first responders, the community and the community response, the survivors, and the victims,” Brunner explained.

A beacon in the courtyard is specifically placed so that when the sun hits it every Mar. 22 at 10:37 a.m., it shines light on a large jade boulder. The boulder was recovered amongst the debris, but is now inscribed with the words, “Hope is seeing the light despite the darkness.”

“It was very important to us that that this area didn’t feel like a giant cemetery or tombstone,” Pszonka said.

Along the walkway, carefully placed colored rocks along the path mimic the curves of the Stillaguamish River that flows near Oso. Monuments to first responders and search and rescue dogs can be seen alongside informational panels about life before and after the slide.

“There’s a paved trail, which is used to be the railroad tracks,” said Brunner. “But it’s paved for only a mile, which represents where the slide started and ended.”

At the end of the walkway are 43 large, curved metal panels by Seattle artist Tsovinar Muradyan, one for each victim. Each family chose their own unique cutout designs filled with colorful epoxy — and the unique quotes and photos honoring each life cut short.

“Like with my wife, she had a love of hummingbirds,” Ward said, sitting in front of the panel he helped customize. “And she loved her flowers, she had plants everywhere.”

Many survivors, family members have left the area

Many of those caught in the devastation of the Oso tragedy have left the area. Ward now lives in Florida. Pszonka says now that the memorial is finished, she is relocating her family to Texas. But they all agree they will come back, This tiny logging town will forever be etched in their histories.

“The beauty of the area is still here. The beauty of the people is still here. One of my daughters and her family are still here,” Ward said.

But while he has sought peace elsewhere, he believes the memorial is a chance to say the goodbye he never got to 10 years ago.

“I didn’t get a chance to say ‘I love you’ to my wife. I just got to be able to look at her eyes,” he told KIRO Newsradio.

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KIRO Newsradio was in Oso on the 10th anniversary of the landslide that killed 43 people on Friday, March 22, 2024. The SR 530 Slide Memorial was dedicated after a years-long effort to complete it.

KIRO Newsradio was in Oso on the 10th anniversary of the landslide that killed 43 people on Friday, March 22, 2024. (Photo: Kate Stone, KIRO Newsradio)

Pszonka wants those who visit and those who seek solace at the memorial to look at it as a space to heal and reflect.

“I want people to come here and see hope. I want them to see that what transpires when a community comes together,” she said while looking up at the ruins of what was once a quiet neighborhood.

For Brunner, the memories are as raw as they were a decade ago. But finishing the memorial is also fulfilling a vow he made to his sister in the days after the tragedy.

“I had made a solemn promise to her out here that I would make sure that the world knew who she was,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. He gave a wry smile through the tears in his eyes. “She wouldn’t have liked any of this at all. She was extremely shy, and it glorifies her life. But that’s okay. She can… she can be mad at me.” His voice wavers. “I miss her a lot.”

The memorial is now accessible to the public daily from dawn to dusk.

Editors’ note: This story originally was published on Friday, March 22. It has been updated and republished multiple times since then. 

Contributing: The Associated Press

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