Rustic retreat turned deadly in Oso

Rustic retreat turned deadly in Oso

Credit: Getty Images

Searchers continued looking for survivors in Oso, Wash., March 25, 2014, following a deadly mudslide.

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by ELIZABETH WEISE / USA TODAY

KREM.com

Posted on March 26, 2014 at 4:28 PM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 26 at 4:28 PM

ARLINGTON, Wash. — Oso is the kind of community people dream of retiring to: 49 homes on a bend in the river, a breathtaking view of serene hillsides and a bluff.

When Dave and Ruth Hargrave bought their vacation home on the north fork of the Stillaguamish River, they did their due diligence about what seemed the most obvious hazard.

"I went to every neighbor on the road and asked them what the highest the river had ever risen was," Dave, 73 says.

Certain they'd be safe, he spent the next 15 years driving from their home in Kirkland, an hour south, to work on the 600-square-foot cabin. The couple came to love the tight-knit community of neighbors along Steelhead Drive, the only road through Oso.

"When you sit out on the deck, all you could see was the river and the mountains, and all you could hear is the birds and the water. There was no TV, no radio, no Internet," says Ruth, 67.

Some years the river rose, some years it fell. Once, "it cut a little channel across the yard, and there were fish there," Dave says.

And sometimes the earth moved. In 2006, a mudslide from Skaglund Hill slumped down, rerouting the Stillaguamish slightly closer to their cabin.

"Since the mudslide eight years ago, you just didn't think it would happen again," Dave says.

Just before 11 a.m. Saturday, the entire hillside gave way.

Who lived and who died Saturday depended on tiny decisions that no one could have known mattered.

Ron and Gail Thompson went shopping Saturday morning, Gail's 85-year-old mother didn't feel like going, but Ron pressed her and she went along.

"Thank God, thank God they'd gone to Costco that morning," says their daughter, Jennifer Thompson-Johnson, 43. "If they'd left eight minutes later, they would have been dead."

"They're not worried about themselves, they're worried about their neighbors," she said. "They were giving people. If there was a funeral, someone was sick, they were there to help. If somebody was gone, my dad would mow their lawn. They had a whole big garden up there and all of it went to the food bank."

Her parents found out Monday that their insurance doesn't cover the movement of the earth.

"It's everything they own. It's everything they had," Thompson-Johnson says. " They're going to have to start completely over."

'NO ONE'S SEEN HIM SINCE'

The Hargraves had skipped their usual weekend trip to the cabin because friends were visiting in Kirkland.

"We had one neighbor who was heading into town to go shopping with his wife," Dave says. "His mother didn't want to go but he said 'Come on,' so she did."

That family survived. "They lost their house, but they're OK. But as they were driving out, he told me they saw a neighbor driving in," Dave says. "No one's seen him since."

The Hargraves are grateful. "We lost our cabin, but none of that matters" Dave says. "It's our neighbors I'm worried about."

By Tuesday night, 16 people had been confirmed dead and rescuers believe they may have found eight more bodies. That would bring the death toll to 24.

Officials say 176 people were still unaccounted for. That doesn't mean 176 people are really missing, authorities emphasize. There are probably duplicates, and some of those folks probably went away for the weekend.

But there is no question more bodies will be found.

Near the southern perimeter of the mile-wide slide, volunteers from a logging crew are moving debris with chainsaws, excavators and other heavy equipment.

Gene Karger says he could see six orange flags in the debris field, marking bodies they would be pulling out. Karger, a logger most of his life, said it was the first time he was involved in this kind of rescue work.

"You see parts of their bodies sticking out of the mud. It's real hard. It's that bad," Karger says. "There are people out there we know."

The scope of the debris field is difficult to comprehend. Gov. Jay Inslee toured it by helicopter.

"You're looking at a square mile of devastation," he says. "The distance is just enormous. When you look over across the river at where this mountain was, it's very difficult to comprehend how this mountain could travel all this way across the river, across the valley, across the highway and halfway up the other valley."

Crews use sonar to find voids in the slurry that might indicate a car, a crushed house or another structure. They might have to dig to get closer. Then microphones are used to listen for possible sounds of life.

Next, cameras are lowered on long, flexible tubes into possible voids to look for signs of life or, in the worst case, bodies, Snohomish County emergency manager Pennington explains.

Crews have to move extremely carefully, says Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire District 21. "Some of my guys could only go 50 feet in five minutes,"

The cause of the disaster is still uncertain. It had been raining hard for days.

Marshia Armstrong lives a few miles away. "We had rain — it was so hard I swear I thought someone was standing out on the desk spraying the hose against the windows," she says.

And more rain is coming for the next week, the National Weather Service says, but not enough to threaten flooding from the Stillaguamish. There was worry over the weekend as the mud caused the river to back up, but water began to pour through and the threat eased.

'I KNEW IT WOULD FAIL'

Fifteen years ago, scientist Daniel MIller warned about the potential for a catastrophic landslide in Oso.

"I knew it would fail catastrophically in a large-magnitude event," though not when it would happen, says Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist who was hired by the Army Corps of Engineers. "I was not surprised."

Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, says it appears the report was intended not as a risk assessment but as a feasibility study for ecosystem restoration.

Asked whether the agency should have done anything with the information, she said: "We don't have jurisdiction to do anything. We don't do zoning. That's a local responsibility."

John Pennington, emergency management director for Snohomish County, said, "This entire year, we have pushed message after message that there's a high risk of landslides. The dangers and the risks are known."

It seems most people here have some sort of close call, or know someone who did. Highway 530 the main road through Oso between the towns of Arlington and Darrington, runs just yards from the slide area.

Armstrong says one of the agents in her real estate office, Dean Case, was driving from Darrington to meet up with his son, Scott, who lives in Arlington.

"Dean called Scott and said, 'Do you have those papers to sign with you?' Scott realized he'd left them in the office, so he pulled a U-turn and ran back to get them. It just took him five minutes, but it probably saved his life. Five minutes later, the slide had closed the road and he couldn't get through."

"He would have died if he'd been on the road right then."

That's one worry that haunted authorities.

Even people who didn't live in Oso or the towns further along Highway 530 might have been on the road.

It's a beautiful area with amazing views of snow covered White Horse mountain. "I was going up to take pictures, there are eagles nesting up there," says Debra Hoskins, who has a cabin about a half-mile from the slide area. It was undamaged.

"Lots of people driving up there on Saturday," she says. "There are elks and the eagles."

Hoskins, a minister, came into town Tuesday to pray with those who had lost their loved ones and those waiting to find out. "God is with us always," she says. "We have to remember that."

Everywhere you turn in Arlington, someone wants to help. Rocio Montero didn't live in Oso. Her family is in Arlington. She and her husband went to the police station to find out if there were any Spanish-speaking families who might need help or translation.

"We're so sad for everyone," she says. "We're worried for them."

Michelle Hutchison, 42, lived in Darrington, 20 minutes east of Oso, for six years.

"We knew lots of people who lived there," she says. "They went to school in Darrington or they shopped in Darrington or they went to church in Darrington."

Her family moved to Longview, about three hours south, but when the slide happened she had to do something to help.

She created a map showing all the properties she could identify with homes on them and wrote all the names of people she knew were either missing or had survived.

"The Lord called me to do it," she says.

She put the map on Facebook. Now most of the pages for the various support efforts have linked to it.

"I have not used mass media like this ever, but I said, 'This is what it's for. This is how you can quickly and easily get information out to people who need it,'" Hutchinson says.

She hasn't given up. She says, "In the tsunami in Japan, they were pulling people out alive two weeks later. So I have lots of hope."

Contributing: Doyle Rice in McLean, Va.; the Associated Press

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