Riley Brunner held keys and glasses that belonged to his aunt, Summer Raffo, who died in the Oso landslide. Ordinary objects have become cherished connections to loved ones.

Jim Wilson • New York Times,

Volunteer Ralph Jones, left, and Tim Perciful of the Mountain View Fire Department helped keep ­Klarissa Calviste and her daughter Kielie Braaten, left, and Brooke Odenius and her daughter Bexli dry as they observed a moment of silence Saturday to honor the victims of the Oso mudslide.

Joshua Trujillo • via Associated Press,

A now-barren hillside overlooks a valley filled with mud at the scene of the deadly slide in Oso, Wash. A week after the disaster, 90 people are still missing and feared dead in the jumble of debris.

Elaine Thompson • Associated Press,

A dog works with searchers at the scene of a deadly mudslide Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Oso, Wash. Besides the more than two dozen bodies already found, many more people could be buried in the debris pile left from the mudslide one week ago. Ninety people are listed as missing. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, Pool)

Feed Loader,

Items found in the mudslide connect the living to their loved ones

  • Article by: Jack Healy, Kirk Johnson and Ian Lovett
  • New York Times
  • March 29, 2014 - 9:40 PM

– Gently, Dayn Brunner reached into the mangled car and lifted his younger sister’s lifeless body out of the driver’s seat and onto a waiting tarp. 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, 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.

With 30 people now officially missing after many were tracked down and lists were updated, residents are bracing for fresh waves of grief ahead. It seems all but certain that 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.

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.

Memories of a lost way of life

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 Thursday.

After a disaster that 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 Tuesday. “The person’s gone.”

Rescue crews are carefully saving what they find: the family photos and Bibles, stuffed animals and antiques. Everything will be sorted, decontaminated and photographed for families to reclaim.

Even now the townspeople 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.”

Residents 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.

“It’s going to take a long time to heal, and the likelihood is that we will probably never be whole.”

Only scraps of lives remain

Residents like Robin Youngblood, 63, who survived, now have only scraps remaining of the lives their families built. Youngblood’s great-grandfather worked in the logging camps. In 2012, she moved back to the area. “This place brought me back here,” she said. “Being home. I’ve always wanted to come back.”

In a modest trailer not far from 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. Reed Miller, 75, who had driven into Arlington, a town about 20 miles away, for groceries, is in a Red Cross shelter because his house is gone.

His daughter, and Joseph’s sister, Pam Sanford, came from her home in 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, 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 and 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 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.

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.

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