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Washington landslide: Navy commander loved both land and sea, dad says

By Ray Sanchez, CNN
updated 6:55 PM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
 U.S. Navy Commander John Regelbrugge died in the Washington state landslide, along with his wife, Kris, according to family members.
U.S. Navy Commander John Regelbrugge died in the Washington state landslide, along with his wife, Kris, according to family members.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III and his wife were found after deadly landslide
  • The couple slept in on the morning of the landslide, his father said
  • Regelbrugge's brothers and two of his sons found his body
  • Victim's father: "There were like 30 people living there and 20-something of them are dead"

(CNN) -- "Well, how do you remember any son?" John Regelbrugge II asked in a telephone call from his home in northern California.

The body of his son, Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III, 49, was among at least 16 bodies recovered after a massive landslide Saturday swallowed houses and trailers in Washington's Cascade Mountains. At least eight more bodies await inclusion in the official count once medical examiners identify them.

"I mean, you know, he was just one hell of a man," his father recalled. "He was a great boy, very active in sports. He loved to hunt. He was one of my hunting partners for years until he went to the Navy."

The Navy, where Regelbrugge served 32 years, said in a statement Thursday that it was still awaiting the coroner's official report before releasing information about "our dear shipmate and his family."

But John Regelbrugge II, 72, had no doubt. The commander's brothers and two of his sons found his body in a debris field near where Regelbrugge lived with his wife, Kris, who also died. They had hoped to run into him helping the rescue effort, his father said.

"Actually, he's not officially dead yet," said his father, choking with emotion. "You know how the red tape is, the medical examiner and all that crap. There's no two ways about it. I mean, the boy that called me says, he's laying at my feet dead. He had the dog next to him. They weren't going to give up until they found him."

His son's Navy uniforms and his officer's sword was across the river from where the two-story house once stood in the remote, mountainous area. His son appeared to have his arms up, perhaps trying to protect himself, his father said.

Regelbrugge and his wife had slept in on Saturday morning, when they had expected to travel to Seattle to visit their daughter, Sara.

"His brother Greg lives up there and called him at 9:40 in the morning, and he said John just got up and they would get going in a little bit," John Regelbrugge II recalled. "Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, the mud hit. They never got going."

Regelbrugge II and his wife raised their family in a rugged and isolated community northwest of Sacramento. That passion for the outdoors and the beauty of the mountains drew his son and his wife to Darrington.

"We live in the middle of nowhere as it is," the father said. "Right now, I'm about nine miles north of a town of about 5,000 and six miles southeast of a town of a little over 1,000. When John went to school ... there were 800 people in town and a graduating class of 20 or 21 kids. He's always been in the country. He enjoyed being out. He used to love to ride the horses. He and one of his brothers would disappear up into the hills on the horses and come back hours later."

From Darrington, Regelbrugge commuted to his job at an area naval base, his father said.

"He bought that place in the middle of nowhere," said John Regelbrugge II. "That's why it's so hard to believe that mudslide wiped anything out. I know they keep saying 30 homes. There were eight homes on Steelhead Drive and that's where he was. I never saw nothing but a few farms around there. Those eight homes are gone."

John Regelbrugge II said his son threw a big party the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day that was attended by neighbors from Steelhead Drive and the vicinity.

"All the neighbors were there -- 30 of them," he said. "That was everybody that lived there. They were real tight. Everybody had a half-acre or three-quarters of an acre. There were like 30 people living there, and 20-something of them are dead."

Regelbrugge recently served aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. A 2012 tweet from the Navy said that at the time, he had three sons in the service: Brian Regelbrugge was a cryptologic technician 2nd Class in the Navy; Kyle Regelbrugge was a Navy machinist's mate fireman; and Scott Regelbrugge was an Army corporal. The couple also had two daughters.

"He loved the Navy," John Regelbrugge II said. "That was his big thing. He was his mom's sailor boy. He had over 27 years on his sea clock. He was out to sea a lot. He took the Navy like a duck takes to water."

Scott Regelbrugge left to work at a local sawmill before the landslide came, his grandfather said.

When Regelbrugge joined the Navy, he would write poems to his late mother, Grace.

"She was so proud of him," the eldest Regelbrugge recalled. "She passed away on July 28 at 10:35 in the morning. I'm still trying to get over that. She died of pancreatic cancer. That upset Johnny something terrible too."

Since his mother's death, Regelbrugge had called his father twice a day to check on him.

"He was worried about me," the father said. "I prefer to be alone after my wife died."

Asked how he remembered his son, the father said simply: "John just loved life."

How to help the victims

CNN's Chelsea J. Carter, Ana Cabrera and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.

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