‘These are our people’: Residents unite to help Washington landslide victims
DARRINGTON, Washington — Elaine Young looks up as a helicopter hovers above a mountain of splintered trees and ice-cold, gelatinous mud, the remnants of a massive landslide that wiped out her once idyllic neighborhood.
In the distance, she sees her son and friends working in the mud and debris, digging for those still missing.
Moments earlier, there had been a grim discovery: another body of a neighbor.
A week ago, a rain-saturated hillside along the north fork of the Stillaguamish River gave way, burying her neighborhood on the outskirts of Oso in Washington’s North Cascade Mountains in wet earth and rock.
In the minutes and hours after the slide on March 22, firefighters, neighbors, family and friends pulled survivors from the debris.
But with every day that has passed since then, hope has faded that anyone else will be found alive.
The official death toll stands at 21. Thirty people are still missing.
So, they search.
Somewhere beneath the muck and debris are missing neighbors and friends, people who are part of the fabric of the neighboring towns of Darrington and Oso tucked away in the rugged mountains.
“These are our people,” Young says, fighting back tears. “Everybody here knows somebody hit by the slide, and I mean everybody.”
It won’t be OK for a long time
As she watches the helicopter crew drop body bags, the mother in her wants to run down and wrap her arms around her 20-year-old son.
She wants to tell him it will be OK. But it won’t, she knows. Not for a long time.
She turns her attention back to her own job driving a four-wheeler, ferrying loggers and search crews up and down the mounds of mud.
A sign on the way into Darrington shouts its pride: “Git ‘Er Done.”
In many ways, it speaks to the hardy nature of the miners and loggers who founded these remote communities and built them up.
And that nature carried through with the generations that followed.
That’s why Oso and Darrington, in particular, have a reputation for being self-reliant.
The church needs a new roof? Men and women show up with hammers and nails to help. Somebody in a family dies? People cook, taking care of feeding people at the funeral.
So when the call for help went out after the landslide, everybody responded in one way or another. They didn’t wait for federal agencies to swoop in to find the missing and provide comfort to the grieving.
They did it themselves.
There were the loggers, who trudged into the mud with their own equipment to cut through the hundreds of shattered and splintered Douglas firs felled by the landslide.
There were the heavy equipment operators, people who brought in their own backhoes and earthmovers.
There were drivers, who brought in their own dump trucks.
“That’s just the way things are done here,” Pastor Michael De Luca of the First Baptist Church of Darrington said.
His white-washed church has become one of the focal points after the slide, with people leaving donations — food, clothing and money — at the food bank that operates out of the basement.
For days, he has been ministering to the worried and grief-stricken, who have refused to stop in their efforts to help find the missing.
“People want to do something. If they are not trained to search, they still want to help,” he said.
Finding a way to help
Kenny Friddle was recovering from shoulder surgery when he got the news.
Like most in the town, he initially thought it was just a small slide that covered a part of State Highway 530, the main artery between Darrington, Oso and the outside world.
But within hours, it was clear that the landslide was massive and the toll devastating.
For two days, he watched the news reports about the search and rescue efforts.
He knew he couldn’t go dig in the muck. Not with his shoulder.
But he knew he could help in a different way, grinding the rock needed to build stable, makeshift roads in the mud and debris so equipment could be brought in to begin the arduous process of clearing the muck.
But it was off season at the quarry he operates, and there were only a handful of hauling trucks in Darrington.
Friddle called Annie Green-Reece, who runs the truck scales at the quarry during the season.
She didn’t need to watch the news to know what happened in the “530 slide,” as the locals call it. She was there, trying to find her son.
Even after Green-Reece found out he was safe, she stayed — climbing through the mud and over debris, digging with her hands. On the other side of the slide, her son was doing the same.
‘You are helping’
When Friddle called, Green-Reece got on the phone to dispatchers around the state, and soon, trucks began arriving.
They have been showing up every day, driving the wet, muddy, narrow road up the side of a mountain to a quarry. Some are familiar drivers, people they have worked with over the years. Others are new faces, volunteers who answered a call.
Nobody’s getting paid. At least, not yet.
There’s hope they will get some help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to compensate for the manpower, fuel and hundreds of loads of rock that have rolled out of the quarry to the slide.
“We’re doing it because it has to be done,” says Green-Reece, standing outside a shack that serves as her office.
Friddle’s mechanic wanted to join the more than 100 volunteer workers searching the slide devastation for the missing.
“He told me he wanted to go down there and help. I said ‘You are helping. If this equipment breaks down, the whole operation comes to a standstill. We need you to keep it running, to keep these trucks moving,’ ” Friddle says.
Preparing for what’s to come
Even before the true toll of the landslide was known, people rushed to open the Darrington Community Center. They set up a temporary shelter with cots for those evacuated and those who, undoubtedly, would come to town to help search.
Built by the loggers as a gift to the community, the building is by far the largest in town, resembling the historic Hoosiers Gym with its elevated bleacher seating and wall-to-wall basketball floor.
It wasn’t what was planned for the weekend.
A sign still hangs on the wall advertising the weekend’s “Happy Day Get-together,” an annual reunion of sorts that brings out the whole town.
“This is not a happy time to have it,” 82-year-old Janet Cabe said as she cut into a steaming turkey she cooked to feed local volunteer firefighters and “anybody else who needs something to eat.”
For days, food has been showing up on her back porch: frozen turkeys and ham, fixings for biscuits and gravy, sacks of onions and potatoes.
She doesn’t know who has been bringing most of it. But she knows what it’s for: the coming onslaught of expected funerals from the slide.
For decades, she has been one of the leading members of the Memorial Dinner Committee, a group of women who cook and feed people at funerals. It started as a way to remove an unneeded burden from a grieving family. Now it’s a staple of the community.
Typically, there’s one funeral every few weeks. On rare occasions, there are two at the same time.
This time, there probably will be dozens of services taking place around the same time.
The first is already scheduled. It’s for her friend Linda McPherson, the retired librarian and longtime school board member. Her body was among the first pulled from the mud and debris after her house was flattened in the slide.
“We’ll take care of it,” she said.
There is concern about whether the already struggling town can bounce back. It still hasn’t recovered from the hit the logging and timber industries took in the 1970s, when so many people lost their jobs.
The main artery that connected Darrington to the outside world — State Highway 530 — has been severely damaged by the landslide, and the state transportation department is now mulling whether it can ever be reopened.
What was once a 30- to 45-minute commute to nearby Arlington and Interstate 5, the state’s main north-south thoroughfare, has now turned into a two-hour drive on a two-lane road. A simple trip to the doctor that once took an hour is now a four-hour journey.
Already, it’s taking its toll on budgets in this largely working-class community with a median income of $32,000.
At De Luca’s church, people have been lining up at the back door — the entrance to the food bank — for help to offset what they are now spending on gas.
Darryl Perkins, a bear of a man with a bushy beard, has been working 12- and 16-hour days there to unload truckloads of donations pouring in from across the state.
He carries boxes up and down the steps of the church basement and runs deliveries to people in need.
“Whatever is needed,” Perkins says as he piles boxes of toys, diapers and baby formula in his truck to take to the town’s child care center, where many children are spending the day while their parents volunteer to keep the town going.
Back at Young’s house, crews and rescue and cadaver dogs get a brief respite from the mud and the emotion brought by the search.
It’s one of the few homes still standing in the landslide debris zone.
The mudflow missed her house, but the first floor was ravaged after the debris diverted the river. So was her grandmother’s Bible, whose pages were lined with handwritten notes.
She plans to restore her house and return to it with her husband. “I think getting back there, getting back into a routine, a little bit of normalcy, will help,” she says.
But for now, blue pop-up tents have been set up on what’s left of her lawn to provide shelter from the steady rain.
It is from here she looks out onto the debris field, waiting for someone to signal her for a ride on the four-wheeler.
Nights now are the hardest, Young says.
“You can’t turn your thoughts off,” she said. “You sleep about an hour, and then you wake up. It just doesn’t stop.”
She doesn’t want to cry. There will be time for that later, she tells herself. Now, it’s about finding neighbors and friends.
So, she and dozens of others who call this area home trudge out into the mud to look for those still missing.
She does it, she says, because they would have done the same for her.
By Chelsea J. Carter