‘These are our people’: Residents unite to help Washington landslide victims


Story highlights

A landslide struck on March 22, leaving 24 people dead and another 30 missing

Elaine Young and her son are among the volunteers working to find the missing

"Everybody here knows somebody hit by the slide, and I mean everybody," Young says

Residents didn't wait for agencies to find the missing and provide comfort to the grieving

Darrington, Washington CNN —  

Elaine Young looks up as a helicopter hovers above a mountain of splintered trees and ice-cold, gelatinous mud, the remnants of a massive landslide that wiped out her once idyllic neighborhood.

In the distance, she sees her son and friends working in the mud and debris, digging for those still missing.

Moments earlier, there had been a grim discovery: another body of a neighbor.

A week ago, a rain-saturated hillside along the north fork of the Stillaguamish River gave way, burying her neighborhood on the outskirts of Oso in Washington’s North Cascade Mountains in wet earth and rock.

In the minutes and hours after the slide on March 22, firefighters, neighbors, family and friends pulled survivors from the debris.

But with every day that has passed since then, hope has faded that anyone else will be found alive.

The official death toll stands at 24. Thirty people are still missing.

So, they search.

Somewhere beneath the muck and debris are missing neighbors and friends, people who are part of the fabric of the neighboring towns of Darrington and Oso tucked away in the rugged mountains.

“These are our people,” Young says, fighting back tears. “Everybody here knows somebody hit by the slide, and I mean everybody.”

Hope remains

It won’t be OK for a long time

As she watches the helicopter crew drop body bags, the mother in her wants to run down and wrap her arms around her 20-year-old son.

She wants to tell him it will be OK. But it won’t, she knows. Not for a long time.

She turns her attention back to her own job driving a four-wheeler, ferrying loggers and search crews up and down the mounds of mud.

A sign on the way into Darrington shouts its pride: “Git ‘Er Done.”

In many ways, it speaks to the hardy nature of the miners and loggers who founded these remote communities and built them up.

And that nature carried through with the generations that followed.

That’s why Oso and Darrington, in particular, have a reputation for being self-reliant.

The church needs a new roof? Men and women show up with hammers and nails to help. Somebody in a family dies? People cook, taking care of feeding people at the funeral.

So when the call for help went out after the landslide, everybody responded in one way or another. They didn’t wait for federal agencies to swoop in to find the missing and provide comfort to the grieving.

They did it themselves.

There were the loggers, who trudged into the mud with their own equipment to cut through the hundreds of shattered and splintered Douglas firs felled by the landslide.

There were the heavy equipment operators, people who brought in their own backhoes and earthmovers.

There were drivers, who brought in their own dump trucks.

“That’s just the way things are done here,” Pastor Michael De Luca of the First Baptist Church of Darrington said.

His white-washed church has become one of the focal points after the slide, with people leaving donations – food, clothing and money – at the food bank that operates out of the basement.

For days, he has been ministering to the worried and grief-stricken, who have refused to stop in their efforts to help find the missing.

“People want to do something. If they are not trained to search, they still want to help,” he said.

Why did they allow homes to be built in the area?

Finding a way to help

Kenny Friddle was recovering from shoulder surgery when he got the news.

Like most in the town, he initially thought it was just a small slide that covered a part of State Highway 530, the main artery between Darrington, Oso and the outside world.