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One Year After Mudslide, First Responders Tackle Emotional Damage

A sign memorializes the devastating mudslide that killed 43 people in Oso, Wash., one year ago.
Ted S. Warren
A sign memorializes the devastating mudslide that killed 43 people in Oso, Wash., one year ago.

One year ago, a mudslide wreaked havoc on Oso, a small community in Washington state. It took just a few minutes to topple dozens of homes, leaving 43 people dead. Volunteers and first responders rushed to the scene to save trapped residents. Yet, remarkably, none of them were hurt, at least not physically.

In the weeks and months following the landslide, thousands of people from the outlying areas formed teams. Loggers brought in heavy equipment; Red Cross and other groups organized volunteers and protected families from the throngs of media.

Forty-three trees now mark the area where the same number of people were killed by the mudslide.
Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU
Forty-three trees now mark the area where the same number of people were killed by the mudslide.

The community pulled what it could from the mud. Willy Harper, chief of the all-volunteer Oso fire department, says anytime human remains were found, the whole operation would stop and the search teams would remove their caps.

"It became very solemn out here and very quiet," he says. "Even amongst all that machinery, it all shut down and it was absolutely still and quiet."

Today, it's still quiet. Now 43 trees pay tribute to the people who died. A retired construction worker stands between barricades next to a street sign that says "Steelhead Drive," but the road goes nowhere. Harper reflects on that day, a year ago, that the street was swallowed.

"As we're coming up on this last hill, when I got the initial response, I couldn't see anything," he says. "I thought it was just water in the road or a barn in the road, and some minor flooding."

But it wasn't just minor flooding. The destruction was much bigger. Nearly a square mile, gone.

"As I turned this last corner, all I could see was a wall of mud and debris," Harper says. "At that point I couldn't see beyond the piles of houses. Really, we couldn't even tell they were houses."

Harper doesn't like to drive on the recently reopened highway that was devastated in the mudslide. But he'll do it if pressed.

"It's kind of a closed area," he says.

Harper, like many volunteers and first responders, now knows what soldiers mean when they talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Joel Johnson is the Oso fire department's chaplain. The mudslide was his first solo call. He's 26 years old and found himself counseling men and women twice his age working in the rubble.

"Some people, it just hit them like a ton of bricks," Johnson says. "You needed to be there and help them maybe walk away off that area maybe back to base camp or something like that."

Johnson slept in a truck nearby the night of the slide, even when there were evacuation orders. He's been practically living at the firehouse for the past year.

"Some people were just overjoyed to have been able to find their loved one," he says. "They didn't have to worry anymore; they didn't have to wonder what was going on. There was actually a sense of relief with that."

Also among the hundreds of volunteers who have stuck around is Kim Parsons, whose close friend and co-worker was the only survivor found in a car after the slide. She says she's proud to have been a part of the rescue.

"Years from now, it will be in the history books and a lot of people won't understand the impact that it had on the community or what it was like," she says. "What it was like walking around out there and knowing that you were trying to help look for people or their personal items. It's something a lot of people will never experience."

This weekend, thousands are expected to come out and pay their respects to those who went through one of the most devastating mudslides in U.S. history.

Dan Kulencamphe surveys the wreckage. The 64-year-old was last here years ago visiting a nephew who got out of the area just before the disaster.

"It's sad, it brings a tear to your eyes," he says. "You think of the little baby. Good people disappeared that fast."

Copyright 2015 KNKX Public Radio

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to