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Survivors Wonder: Why Are We Alive?

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
A demolished recreational vehicle lies near the edge of a debris field at the scene of a deadly mudslide, Thursday, April 3, 2014, in Oso, Wash.

It was a sound like a jet engine. Then a forest of trees collapsed. And all was quiet except for the calls for help.

LoAnna Langton ran out of her house with her baby boy in her arms. Confused about what had just happened, she shouted for her children and their friends. She knew she needed to have her all her babies close at hand.

"Larry, Larry, did you see those trees? There's a hundred trees that just went down," she screamed to her neighbor, Larry Taylor, who opened his door and poked his head out.

About 150 feet away, the rest of their rural Washington neighborhood had disappeared in a massive tangle of mud and debris. The huge March 22 landslide in Oso killed more than two dozen people and left many others missing. It was one of the worst natural disasters in state history.

Taylor, Langton, her four children, her mother and her great aunt survived. And like others who are still alive — either by luck or circumstance — they are trying to make sense of the tragedy.

LoAnna Langton's husband, Kristopher Langton, also lived. When the slide struck, he had been on his way back home from an errand. After a few seconds of listening to his wife scream on the phone, he raced into the muck to try to reach his family.

"I was scared out of my mind," LoAnna Langton recalled days after the landslide. She was worried about her husband and about getting her children to safety.

Emergency workers tried to stop Kristopher Langton, but he pushed on through the mud and over trees and other debris. He helped pull three adults and a baby out of the debris. By the time he reached their house, it was surrounded by water and his family was safely away.

Hours later, LoAnna Langton turned to Taylor and asked, "How did we survive that?"

"I bless my house every day," Taylor said. The ordained minister was only half-joking.

The Langtons and their friend and neighbor, Taylor, are trying to rebuild their lives and find meaning in their survival.

LoAnna Langton says, "God protected us."

This was the second time her family had a close call with disaster. About a year and a half ago, when they lived in her hometown of Ellensburg, the 2012 wildfire known as the Taylor Bridge Fire skipped their house and destroyed 61 other homes and blackened 36 square miles around them.

"We figure that God has plans either for us or our children," she said in an interview.

Taylor is thinking of building a meditation chapel in Darrington, where his friends and neighbors could find some peace and tranquility.

He said he's heard probably a dozen stories of other people who survived because of a fluke of circumstances. Some were delayed returning home or just missed the slide by minutes.

Pastor Mike DeLuca of Darrington's First Baptist Church said he's been hearing those stories as well. A man who was scheduled to work on a roof in Oso around the time of the slide talked about his decision to not go to that job because he wanted to be at his son's wrestling tournament in Anacortes.

DeLuca said it's been hard for the survivors.

A grandmother who belongs to his church was worried about her granddaughter, who is in the sixth grade in Darrington. She was a mentor to a kindergarten student who was killed in the slide.

"When she found out her little friend was killed, she was devastated," DeLuca said. The grandmother and DeLuca tried to help the girl process her grief but nothing seemed to help until grandma adopted a puppy and the granddaughter had "someone else to take care of."

DeLuca said he needed help himself and has turned to his fellow religious leaders for counseling.

"It hit me about three days later," DeLuca said. "I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach."

He said that feeling was guilt for not being out there and helping pull people out of the debris. His son-in-law reminded him that a 71-year-old didn't belong in the search and rescue effort.

So DeLuca does his rescue work with words instead.

"My phone is ringing off the hook," he said. Weddings have been postponed to make room for funerals and grief counseling.

DeLuca doubts they'll ever be able to forget that day.

"When we go down that road, we'll see that scar. We will remember," he said.