SEATTLE – Just before dark on the drizzling day, the long line of trucks came back. Windshield wipers clicking, headlights beaming, there were firetrucks, aid cars, flatbed trucks with bulldozers and dump trucks. Dozens of them moved slowly along Highway 530 from the mudslide to the Oso Fire Department.
“They’re coming in,” said Nikki Stinson, as she watched from her front yard. She walked back to the old farmhouse. In minutes, she could hear the stomp of boots and voices as the rescue workers peeled off fluorescent bunker gear, leaving chunks of blue-gray mud on the wraparound porch.
Ever since the March 22 mudslide killed about 20 percent of the town’s 180 people and left several more missing, Stinson, her husband, Corey, and their six children have been helping out. They’ve taken unpaid leave from jobs to “go out to the pile” – the swath of refuse-laden mud – moved boxes of donated items, kept the coffeepot going and housed visiting workers.
About 900 workers and 31 excavators remained last week at what is still a recovery operation. Among the workers is a cadre of locals – usually those with special skills – who volunteer. In the Oso and Darrington communities, most who live in the small houses along Highway 530 have fed or housed volunteer searchers and have gleaned the mounds of mud at the slide scene for human remains or personal possessions. Sometimes they find clues – a comic book, a toolbox, a toy – from how life used to be.
Around this time last year, Oso was planning an Easter egg hunt, one of the many such events in the small community, where losing neighbors is losing family. Recently, volunteers back from the site warmed themselves at a burn barrel. Against the distant foothills, rolls of blue-black clouds gathered as the last rays of sun slid against wet grass. Smoke drifted from chimneys of houses scattered through the valley.
Next door to the Stinsons, Jeff Smith, 62, came home after working on an access road at the slide site. His wife, Teresa, stood out on the porch with their grandsons as slide traffic crawled past.
Teresa Smith, 61, grew up in their white farmhouse, where American and Marine Corps flags fly at half-staff. Heavy equipment and a flatbed truck are parked at the side.
The day of the slide, she was doing dishes when the lights blinked and her husband, an Oso Fire Department volunteer, was paged. There was a roof in the road and some flooding, something Jeff Smith thought would require putting up traffic cones. Nothing prepared any of them for what they found: a lunar landscape of gray where trees, homes and Highway 530 had been.
The community immediately rushed to the rescue, with the all-volunteer Oso Fire Department first on the scene.
Locals keep helping
While many out-of-town volunteers have left, a core group of local volunteers continues on – some giving full-time hours at the slide, others sandwiching volunteer time during days off from work.
“You just do what you have to do,” Teresa Smith said. “You don’t think about it.”
She has worked at the fire station kitchen, which at one point was feeding 200 people a day. Jeff Smith volunteered his heavy equipment, despite the high cost of the diesel to operate it or the time it takes away from other jobs.
“We’re Oso. We just do it,” Teresa said. For her, it’s part of being in a community. It’s where she went to the historic white Oso School with its bell. It’s where she spent summers making money by picking raspberries down the road.
At first, some of the volunteers from Oso and Darrington felt pushed out when crews from the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived a few days after the slide. Working in the piles of mud helped the locals cope with the loss of neighbors and friends, and the loggers familiar with the area argued they had local knowledge that out-of-towners didn’t. The contentiousness eventually subsided.
Old days are over
Nikki Stinson walked across the wet grass to Teresa’s house. Ron and Gail Thompson, who were away from home when the slide hit, were visiting. One of Stinson’s boys who worked at the slide recovered Ron’s toolbox – the entire thing flattened.
Stinson’s great-grandmother was born in a tent near the Oso Community Chapel. Stinson grew up in Arlington and moved back a few years ago. She, too, helps at the fire station. These days have brought everyone more into contact than ever before.
The old days when you could “pass through Oso and not know so” are over, she said.
Later, as Stinson’s family gathered around the table in the bright-blue dining room, Morgan Stinson, 18, talked about being at the slide and finding “cars completely mangled and then finding a quilt perfectly intact.”
He took time off from his work at a cabinet shop. “I feel I have to be out there,” he said. “This is my community.”
His sister, Caitlin Stinson, 26, said she was motivated to volunteer at the site by the anxiety of not knowing who was missing. She used to work at the Oso General Store and knew all the customers by what coffee drink they ordered.
Did the missing include the logger who ordered the hot mocha with coconut or was it the man whose usual was a 20-ounce vanilla latte?
The family paused as a helicopter roared overhead. Helicopters are usually used to transport bodies from the scene.
“There is no normalcy right now,” said Corey Stinson, 45. “I don’t really want to go back out there.” He took time off from Boeing to work in the pile. One day he was digging and found a will in the mud and it led to finding the body of its author. On other days, there have been photos. Each one is preserved.
Montana, 15, and Nikki, 44, are the only ones in their family who have not worked at the slide scene, and Montana is indignant at being told he’s too young. Nikki Stinson can help best if she stays and keeps the coffeepot on and the food ready, the family says.
“You don’t want to have to deal with this,” Corey Stinson told his wife of 28 years.
The work is hard and personal – going through private pieces of their neighbors’ lives.
“It’s just weird,” he said. “It’s a feeling I’ve never had before. When I’m there, I want to escape and go home. And then when I’m gone, I want to go back.”