By JACK HEALY, KIRK JOHNSON and IAN LOVETT
c. 2014 New York Times News Service
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For almost a week, he and his teenage sons had slogged through the muddy catacomb of what had once been a neighborhood, scouring the pulped homes and broken earth for some sign of her.
Now, it was time to say goodbye and wait for the helicopter to take her away.
“We cried together, and we moved her over,” he said.
But before they could go, Mr. Brunner, 42, turned back to the blue Subaru to salvage a few of the things that his sister Summer Raffo, 36, had carried with her on her final drive through the valley.
He found a horse halter — she had loved to ride and breed horses. Her wallet. Her checkbook. A few packets of honey from KFC stashed in the glove compartment. He tucked them away.
It seems all but certain no one is still alive in the muddy wreckage of the Oso landslide, which left at least 18 people dead and devastated towns up and down this valley of loggers, backcountry skiers and outdoor enthusiasts in the Cascade mountains of northern Washington.
But as search teams pick through the devastation that obliterated homes and pulverized a highway, families and rescuers are finding glimmers of the disparate lives that were irrevocably brought together in one instant on March 22.
They have found the officer's sword and uniforms of Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III, who died.
Photographs that Reed Miller, who was not home at the time, had taken with his son, Joseph, who was at home and is now missing.
A mud-splattered painting of a Native American night warrior that bubbled up from the watery rubble of Robin Youngblood's home, just as she was being rescued.
The baby blanket that belonged to Sanoah Huestis, 4 months old, whose body was recovered on Thursday.
After a disaster that has left so many missing, some perhaps never to be found, these ordinary objects have become connections to loved ones and lost lives.
They are all that is left.
“It means a lot because it's a piece of the person,” said John Regelbrugge Jr., whose son's body was found on Tuesday. “The person's gone.”
Rescue crews are carefully saving what they find: Bibles, stuffed animals and antiques. On Saturday, workers could be seen sorting hundreds of family photos and piling plastic bags filled with personal items onto all-terrain vehicles. Everything will be sorted, decontaminated and photographed for families to reclaim.
With 30 people still officially listed as missing and dozens possibly entombed in millions of tons of clay and tree trunks, residents here are bracing for fresh waves of grief ahead, even as they begin to wonder how the valley and its struggling logging economy will recover from the sheer physical and human toll of one of the worst landslides in the country's history.
“People have been hurting for a long time,” said Olan Flick, who owns an upholstery store a few miles west of the landslide. “This is just going to make things worse.”
Ask residents, and they describe lives as intertwined as a web of tree roots. Here people often recognize your voice if you dial a wrong number. Gas station attendants and supermarket clerks will call parents if they spot children breaking curfew or getting into trouble. Neighbors make preserves for one another and catch up at Friday-night high school baseball games. In Darrington, a few miles upstream from Oso, each time a resident dies, a memorial dinner is held at the community center.
“You know them all,” said Darrington's mayor, Dan Rankin. “This is so beyond us, beyond anybody.”
Some of the people whose lives were swept away had just moved to the area, drawn here by the snow-covered peaks that float above the emerald valley. Others were electricians or plumbers in Oso on a job. Ms. Raffo, who split her time between Darrington and the nearby town of Concrete, was one of several motorists just passing through along Highway 530.
Like many residents, Ms. Raffo worked a handful of part-time jobs, as a custodian at the school and for her parents' janitorial business.
She was also a farrier, and on that Saturday morning, she was on her way to meet a client to shoe a horse. When the slide struck her, it hit so fast that she did not even have time to lift her hands off the steering wheel before her car was buried, her brother, Mr. Brunner, said.
Even as law enforcement agents set up barricades to keep people out of the treacherous slide zone, Mr. Brunner's family and other clusters of residents rushed past or made their way in through rainy back roads. Helicopter rescuers shouted at Mr. Brunner to leave. But he kept telling anyone who asked: My sister's out there.
Residents like Robin Youngblood, 63, who survived, now have only scraps remaining of the lives their families built. Ms. Youngblood's great-grandfather worked in the logging camps, and her great-grandmother cooked for those men. In 2012, she moved back to the area, drawn by a desire to live close to the Stillaguamish River, eagles and salmon-hunting bears.
“This place brought me back here,” she said. “Being home. I've always wanted to come back.”
The slide sent Ms. Youngblood tumbling through a slurry of mud and trees, leaving her modest mobile home in shards. She climbed onto a washing machine, and a friend who had been visiting climbed onto a refrigerator, and they began screaming for help.
Before the helicopter arrived to airlift them out, something floated up from the muddy soup beside Ms. Youngblood. It was a painting called “Wolf Vision,” given to her 20 years ago by an artist she had known in Seattle, of an Indian night warrior.
She said she would never return to the home she lost, a place she now describes in the past tense. And she keeps the painting close. It is still spattered with mud.
“My son told me to leave it,” she said. “He thinks that's how it's supposed to be.”
In a modest trailer not far from Ms. Youngblood lived Reed Miller and his 47-year-old son, Joseph, two men whose passion in life was to hunt, to fish, to run and especially to capture nature with their cameras.
Joseph Miller has been missing since the landslide. His father, Reed Miller, 75, who had driven into Arlington, about 20 miles away, for groceries, is in a Red Cross shelter, his house gone. His daughter, and Joseph's sister, Pam Sanford, came from Idaho to be with him, to see if his insurance might cover anything — it will not — and to wait, resigned to the worst, for news from the bleak and muddy field of debris that was their home.
As for possessions, what her father drove into town wearing is all he has left, Ms. Sanford, 40, said.
“His whole entire life, right there, gone,” she said in an interview. “I just went and got him his vitamin D and a pillbox and his ChapStick — I mean, those things would be sitting at home in a junk drawer.” She described him as being in shock in the week since the disaster, and sometimes a little confused.
But then something unexpected happened: A local volunteer at the landslide site, searching for survivors or bodies, came upon a handful of photographs caked in mud and, recognizing Joseph or Reed Miller's work, got them to Ms. Sanford. The dates of the photos are a jumble — some much older than others. But then, her father's system of organization was his own, she said, with or without a landslide to compound the disorder.
“It's a menagerie of pictures that were somewhere in the house,” she said. Her father, she added, is “an eclectic little old man,” who kept things in piles, boxes and drawers.
The saved images are from an artist's eye: in the bedroom with the cats, some outdoor scenes, an old car, a card-mounted photograph of the type that Joseph Miller made and offered for sale in a local gift shop.
Ms. Sanford carefully cleaned them off and dried them and made a collage that her father can have at the shelter to look at while they wait for news.
They are comforting memories, but also the treasures, now, of a lost world.