Reaction to Oso landslide: "When the mountain fell, the people rose up."

2014-05-30 Ashley Bach

Since the Oso landslide in March, the Everett Herald has covered the story with expertise, sensitivity and a compassion that can come only from a paper with connections to the local community. 

The paper did well again today with a special slate of stories on the disaster, including recollections from first responders, a list of people and groups that pitched in after the slide and an outlook for the Stillaguamish Valley in the months ahead.

But the most extraordinary piece of journalism in today's special section is called "The Rising," a harrowing and heartfelt look at how the residents of the surrounding Darrrington community banded together in the days after the slide. In beat-by-beat detail, the team of Herald reporters describes how neighbors, many of them connected to the forestry industry, rescued survivors and then in the weeks ahead, devoted everything they had to the recovery of victims. 

The complete story should be read to get the full scope of not just the landslide but the Darrington community's refusal to let the disaster keep them down or damage their unity. As the Herald story says, "When the mountain fell, the people rose up." Below are some excerpts.

Locals were the first to arrive at the slide Saturday morning and help the first survivors:

Amanda Skorjanc, 25, was pinned within pieces of a couch, unable to wriggle out from beneath a bushy evergreen with thick, low-hanging branches. She'd been carried 700 feet from where her house once stood. All the while, she clutched her son, Duke Suddarth, praying for God to spare them.

When (Kody) Wesson arrived, he told her he, too, had a baby boy.

“I will make sure he is safe,” promised Wesson, 23, a choker setter whose job keeps him running up and down hills wrapping heavy cables around logs. He started back, gently cradling Duke, keeping him warm, trying not to step into a sinkhole.

Time grew short. Duke's tiny limp body, just five months from the womb, had turned blue. His breaths drew shallow.

Wesson rubbed Duke's legs and picked his way to safety as fast as he could. When he got stuck, he'd hand Duke over to one of the men who followed, taking the baby back when he freed himself.

Duke stopped breathing.

On solid ground, Wesson gave Duke to Steve Jahn Jr., one of Oso's dozen volunteer firefighters. Jahn, 29, had earned his Emergency Medical Technician credentials a few months earlier.

He began chest compressions. Duke let out a cry.

The men's eyes met: One precious life had been saved.

Neighbors kept the effort going the morning after the disaster:

The Cooks, (a couple from Darrington), rolled up to the slide that Sunday expecting to pitch in on a full-scale rescue operation.

Where was the command post? Why weren't any searchers out in the mud? What was the plan?

No one was there to answer their questions.

They got angry, and busy. They drove up the old access road that ran under the power lines along the south side of the valley. Somebody already had cut the lock on the gate that blocked the road.

When they reached an overlook on the southern rim, they saw, for the first time, the enormity of the damage.

The disaster had two faces. On the Oso side, there were piles of dirt and debris. Near Darrington, there was a flood of mud, and the river was rising.

Folks were stirring below, none of them part of any official response. They poked around the edges of the slide, riding their quads overland to skirt roadblocks.

They could see Don and Elaine Young packing their belongings to save what they could from the advancing flood. The Cooks went down to help.

The commitment continued in the first week after the slide:

Logger Ken Wesson knew people were watching, in the valley, and around the world. Most of all, he knew people doing the work needed to believe.

They raised flags as they labored, out of respect for the dead and their families, and to inspire each other.

Wesson's first flag-raising came near a shift change the first week. His brother, Roger Wesson, was running the machine. Roger asked their other brother, Alby Wesson, if he had his tree-climbing gear.

Why?

We are going to raise a flag in that tree, Roger said.

So Alby put on his spikes and climbed a cedar that still stood despite being mauled by the slide. He limbed and topped it, running up a cable to create a spar pole. Someone else grabbed what they called the “rubble” flag. The banner, pulled in tatters from the mud, still had all its stars and stripes.

Word spread. Machine operators powered down. Workers stopped to watch. A question was asked: Should the crew wait for somebody important to come say a few words? Hell no, came the answer.

“We're not waiting for the governor,” Wesson said. “We're not waiting for the president. We're not waiting for anybody. This is for the people who are under the ground that we are looking for, and this is for the people on top of the ground right here, right now.”

The banner rose to the top of the pole, then lowered to half staff.

Alby Wesson began to shout the Lord's Prayer.

“Our Father, who art in heaven …”

Others joined in, one by one. Loggers, firefighters, National Guard troops, federal disaster experts, standing together.

Read the full Herald story, and you can see all of the paper's coverage of the landslide here.

If you would like to donate to those affected by the landslide, the Herald has a contact list of local charities that are taking donations.