Ron Thompson, whose home was destroyed in the Oso, Washington, slide, had a full workshop. He continues to carve signs, including these at his new home behind the Oso fire station. KCTS Photo/Aileen Imperial

We’re Staying in Oso but Every Day We Say Goodbye

They found the bodies by watching the birds.

Eighteen feet deep, buried beneath heavy gray clay the color of northern Washington skies.

It took five months, but they found them all – forty-three victims of the country’s deadliest landslide in the last three decades. When the rescuers found the last body, they raised the flag to full mast at the Oso fire station down the road. Kris Regelbrugge was her name: forty-four, mother to five grown children, sun tattoo on her big toe.

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Gail Thompson, a church secretary who lived around the bend from the Regelbrugges, had waited for this day. She headed to a grief meeting that evening feeling relief and pride. She admired the steel-willed resolve of locals who had picked at this unforgiving earth for five months, and she felt thankful that her friend had been found and her former home would no longer be called a grave.

But the meeting that night was emotionally raw, and Gail left midway.

“A gentleman talked about how sad he is that he doesn’t have his wife, and I felt grateful,” she said the next day. “I needed to be near Ron.” Ron Thompson, her husband of 44 years was also a survivor.

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The Thompsons had narrowly missed being in the slide that Saturday morning, March 22. About 15 minutes before a mountain of mud engulfed their rural community, they had left for Costco in Ron’s pickup truck. They were buying hot dogs and burgers for a church youth group that was coming over the next day to clear alder branches from their five-acre lot.

The Thompsons were shopping when they started getting calls.

The details were fuzzy at first, even for volunteer firefighters first on scene. Their pagers had told them a roof had come off a barn. Even with the chaos before them, it was hard to fully comprehend the reality.

A panoramic view shows the clearing of state Route 530 through Oso after the landslide (left) buried it under layers of mud on March 22, 2014. The highway reopened on May 31, 2014. Flickr Photo/Washington State Department of Transportation (CC-BY-NC-ND)

New Beginnings

Forty-nine houses in this small development off the winding Highway 530 were destroyed. Oso was an unincorporated dot on a map with about 150 residents – the slide downsized their community by a third.

The media descended. And rescuers from around the country, helicopters and cadaver-sniffing dogs. As reports of cries from underground surfaced, the clock was running out. Bodies came up from the mud, several every day, and funerals were planned.

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For the Thompsons, those days were a fog of Jimmy Johns, prayer and numbness. Sometimes, when Gail tried to talk, the wrong words came out.

God has a plan, they repeated to themselves, although what it was, they didn’t know. They missed their neighbors, but it was too painful to say their names out loud, except to God.

“Good morning, Shelly and Wyatt,” Gail would say upon waking. She would list those missing. “I’m going to miss you. I’m sorry. We’re going to miss you. I know you’re OK.”

In those early days, they went to a meeting for survivors but were the only ones who showed up.

“That next night, Mom melted,” their daughter Jennifer Thompson-Johnson said. “She got these rages. Mom never screams. It was always, God has a plan, God has a plan. I was seeing her process.”

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They felt they needed to be strong because they were the lucky ones, Jennifer said. “Yes we have new beginnings, but it’s hard, because you can’t forget all those people who don’t get new beginnings.”

‘We’re Called to Be Here’

For the Thompsons, that new beginning would be in Oso. Several months after the slide, to their daughters’ chagrin, they bought a two-acre lot with nine RV hookups behind the fire station. They put in an offer and closed the same day – without getting an inspection.

Their girls worried the house was in poor condition, and that it was in a slide zone, regardless of what anyone said. Last time, after a smaller slide, officials had told them their parents’ home was just fine.

They also fretted over how their parents would pay for this new home. The Thompsons didn’t have slide insurance, and they’re waiting to see if Snohomish County will buy their piece of the slide zone from them.

The Thompsons don’t dwell on that. They believe they have been called to live here.

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“There’s a reason why we’ve been spared,” Ron said. “We don’t know right now what that is. But we’re going to go one step at a time to free ourselves from this pain that we’re in.”

Back on Steelhead Drive, the road that wrapped around their development, the Thompsons were dubbed the Gatekeepers; Ron was also called the mayor of Steelhead Drive. They moved there in 2003, remodeled the kitchen and built a complete woodshop where Ron made custom signs. When the slide hit, they had paid off the house.

People moved to Oso to be left alone and live off the grid. The Thompsons and some of their neighbors broke down that reserve, and by the time the slide hit, neighbors often joined on Thursdays at the Rhodes River Ranch for all-you-can-eat fish and chips.

Every Friday, the Thompsons would sit outside and crank up Christian music for what they called Praise and Worship – their long-standing date night.

“The night before the slide was probably the most beautiful night I ever experienced there,” Gail said. “There was fresh snow on the hills, and the sky was so blue, and the sun was out.”

Gail and Ron Thompson return to the site of the devastating mudslide for the first time since it took out their home and killed many of their neighbors. KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery

Return to the Site

For nearly six months after the slide, Gail had avoided walking onto the site.

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But on a recent Friday morning, she drove up in a Snohomish County van with Ron and Jennifer.

She woke at 4:30 a.m. to journal as she does every morning. She was nervous.

On the drive up, she combed down the sides of her hair with her fingers. Looking out the window at the construction crews, she said, “I can’t believe the change. I’m so proud of everybody.”

“It hasn’t been easy,” Ron said from the front seat.

When the van crunched to a stop, Ron reached for Gail’s hand. They walked slowly over the mounds of clay to face the mountain that had unfurled so much sadness onto their tiny rural community. The enormity of the slide hit them.

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“Funny how you can feel it,” Ron said.

“I know,” Gail said. “I keep pushing it away.”

They stared at the vista.

“I just can’t believe that’s the same mountain I used to look out at every day,” Gail said. “My mind just can’t get that.”

Ron used his cane to point out where their home had been. Around them plants poked through the clay, and flowers blossomed.

KUOW 94.9 and KCTS 9 collaborated to produce this series of profiles of people most affected by the landslide — a woman rescued from the mud, a couple who lost their home, a first responder struggling with post-traumatic stress, and leaders, municipal and spiritual, still working tirelessly for their community.

Experience the full series, including additional profiles and videos, at KUOW.org.

This story was written and reported by Isolde Raftery and produced by the KUOW Web staff. Liz Jones contributed reporting.

Reporters: Carolyn Adolph, Ashley Ahearn, Katie Campbell, Posey Gruener, Phyllis Fletcher, Aileen Imperial, Stacey Jenkins, Liz Jones, Patricia Murphy and Isolde Raftery.

Editors: Jim Gates and Carol Smith.

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