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In Wake Of Deadly Slide, Chaplains Responding To Emotional Emergencies

Rae Ellen Bichell
Based at the Darrington fire station, Reverend Owen Couch greets first responders when they come in from long days searching in the muck.

As the weeks go by after the deadly mudslide in Oso, the number of volunteers helping to clean up the muddy mess is dwindling. But there’s another team working on an invisible mess — the emotional one. They’re volunteer, emergency response chaplains. Long after the funerals are over and the debris has been disposed of, their work will continue. 

Steve Schertzinger, Owen Couch, and Suzanne and Ray Thompson were some of the first volunteers to arrive after the mudslide in Oso. The chaplains will likely be some of the last to leave. 

Since they retired as a nurse and a firefighter, Suzanne and Ray Thompson have bounced from disaster to disaster.

"Tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, ice storms," Ray Thompson recalled. "I've kind of lost count."

The crisis-trained Orange County couple is basically backup for overwhelmed pastors. As members of the Rapid Response Team with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, it only took them a matter of hours to arrive in Oso once they'd been "deployed."

The evangelists brought extra Bibles with them, but the main resource the Thompsons offer is their time. I found them sitting at the Oso Community Chapel, just down the road from the site of the mudslide, in case someone needed to talk.

“Everyone has a story, and it’s good for them to have someone to talk to and tell their story, so that they know they're not alone," said Suzanne Thompson. "And so that they know that God loves them, and that He hasn't abandoned them.”

'I'm There For Them To Vent'

On Reverend Owen Couch's plate of responsibilities, spirituality is more of a side dish, he says. He's a chaplain with the Snohomish County Medical Reserve Corps, but he's currently based at the Darrington fire station on his own time.

The first responders there (who are also his friends and neighbors) have experienced day after day of difficulties, like exhaustion from wading through thigh-high muck, often in the rain, in search of the remains of people they know. When they walk back through the fire station doors, Couch is one of the first to greet them.

“I’m there for them to vent, if they need somebody to vent to, to yell at if they need somebody to yell at. In a lot of cases, I’m just hearing their frustrations about what could’ve been done better,” Couch said.

Those conversations can be important indicators of a person’s mental state. Couch looks out for subtle signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, like difficulties holding conversation and something he calls tunnel vision.

“Their thinking processes don’t work very well. So I can ask them questions, and they don’t really hear what I’m saying," he said. That can be one important sign that they might need a break from the daily slog.

After 20 years as a police officer and firefighter EMT in this very town, Couch knows what that’s like. He also knows that safety is the top priority.

"We, as first responders, tend to drive ourselves past the point of functioning well," Couch said. "And there can be long-term stress effects. But if you’re not functioning at full capacity in the field, that can be dangerous for you. It can be dangerous for the responders that you’re working with."

The Difficult Job Of Delivering Bad News 

While Couch mans the fire station, Steve Schertzinger has been talking with another traumatized group. He’s been on the job since day one, talking with families who are missing someone in the mud. Lately, he’s been giving death notifications. 

“I did one yesterday," Schertzinger says. "We sat down and I just said, 'Well, the waiting is over.' And then I cried. I cried.”

Credit Rae Ellen Bichell / KPLU
Steve Schertzinger, a chaplain based in Marysville, has been counseling the families of those who are still missing in the mud.

This job is hard. Chaplains might not come home at the end of the day, covered in mud, but they can absorb all that trauma second-hand.

“Frequently when I go home, I just don’t want to talk," he said. "I remember going home one of the nights this week. And I turned on the news and I watched that. And it had been a long day, and I just thought, 'I don’t want to see this anymore.' So I switched to 'Big Bang Theory,' because I needed to laugh. I needed to smile."

Schertzinger says he and his colleagues are setting up a support system for each other, designating people to check in on them to make sure they’re OK, just like they’ve done for everyone else. In a way, Couch is already steeling himself for the next crisis. 

“What I’ve seen is people that are very tired, but faces with grim determination," said Couch. "My function is to support them, not only so that they can function now in the midst of the crisis, but so that they can continue to function next month, and the month after. So that whenever the next crisis comes up, they are prepared to go back out and do what they do.”

A mudslide happens in a matter of seconds. Cleaning up the wreckage can take months. But Schertzinger says the toughest part is yet to come.

“There are some family members that may never be found," said Schertzinger. "I’m not quite sure how you deal with that yet. We’ve never had to do that before. That is new territory ... because this was not an event; this really is a whole season.”

And the season, he says, may not be over for years, until the last body is found — if that day ever comes.