One Year After Mudslide, First Responders Tackle Emotional Damage

One Year After Mudslide, First Responders Tackle Emotional Damage

7:21pm Mar 19, 2015
Forty-three trees now mark the area where the same number of people were killed by the mudslide.
Forty-three trees now mark the area where the same number of people were killed by the mudslide.
Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

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.

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 KPLU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kplu.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One year later, people driving around Oso, Wash., still think about the mudslide that devastated their community. The slide killed 43 people and destroyed dozens of homes. Not one of the first responders to the mudslide was hurt, although it's still on their minds. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Bellamy Pailthorp.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE)

BELLAMY PAILTHORP, BYLINE: Willie Harper is the chief of the all-volunteer Oso Fire Department. He doesn't like to drive on the recently reopened highway that was devastated in the mudslide, but he'll do it if pressed.

WILLIE HARPER: It's kind of a closed area and people are...

PAILTHORP: Harper says he knows now what soldiers mean when they talk about post-traumatic stress.

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

PAILTHORP: But it was much bigger - nearly a square mile gone.

HARPER: And as I turned this last corner, all I could see was a wall of mud and debris. And at that point, I couldn't see beyond the piles of houses, and really, we couldn't even tell they were houses.

PAILTHORP: In the weeks and months following the landslide, thousands of people from the outlying areas formed teams. Loggers brought in heavy equipment. The Red Cross and other groups organized volunteers and protected families from the throngs of media. The community pulled what it could from the mud. And Harper says anytime human remains were found, the whole operation would stop and the search teams would remove their caps.

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

PAILTHORP: It's still quiet now. Forty-three trees have been planted to pay tribute to the people who died. A retired construction worker stands between the barricades next to a street sign that says Steelhead Drive. The road goes nowhere now.

DAN KULENCAMP: It's actually a much smaller hill than I was expecting.

PAILTHORP: Sixty-four-year-old Dan Kulencamp is looking out across the wreckage. He was last here years ago visiting a nephew who got out of the area before the disaster.

KULENCAMP: Oh. It's sad. It brings tears to your eyes. You think of the little baby - good people disappeared that fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

PAILTHORP: A logging truck passes. The highway is reopened now.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREHOUSE RADIO)

PAILTHORP: 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.

JOEL JOHNSON: Some people, it just hit them like a ton of bricks. And you need to be there and help them maybe walk away off the - that area, maybe back to base camp or something like that.

PAILTHORP: 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.

JOHNSON: Some people were just overjoyed to have been able to find their loved one. They didn't have to worry anymore. They didn't have to wonder what was going on. So there was actually a sense of relief with that.

PAILTHORP: Also among the hundreds of volunteers who have stuck around is Kim Parsons, whose close friend and co-worker was the only person driving on the road during the slide. She was found in a car. Parsons says, with a 4-year-old daughter climbing on the couch near her, that she's proud to have been part of the rescue.

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

PAILTHORP: This weekend, thousands are expected to come out and pay their respects those who went through one of the most devastating mudslides in U.S. history. For NPR News, I'm Bellamy Pailthorp in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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