INTO THE MUD

Winter and spring were typically soggy in the verdant Stillaguamish River valley at the western edge of the Cascade Mountain Range. But throughout March, the clouds outdid themselves, soaking the tiny hamlet of Oso, Washington with twice the usual rainfall.

So, when the sun at last rose into a bright blue sky on Saturday morning, March 22, 2014, LoAnna and Kris Langton’s three older kids happily ran outside to play with friends who’d been at their house on C-Post Road, near Highway 530 for a sleep-over. Inside, LoAnna, 30, nursed the youngest Langton, Kristian, 4-months old, while her own mom, Edna McGuffin, and her great aunt Patty sat together on the couch.

Above the laughter of the children in the yard, LoAnna heard a new sound—like the roar of a jumbo jet. It grew more intense by the second, as if the plane were getting ready to crash. The lights in the house began to flicker. Leaving the baby with her mom, LoAnna rushed outside and searched the sky. Nothing. The rumble was coming from behind the house. She turned to see the earth rise up on the 600-foot high tree-covered hill in the distance. Then, it fell again, as if a monstrous bulldozer were pushing from behind. As she watched, a half-mile wide tsunami of churning mud, sand, and debris came thundering down the hill toward them, knocking over hundreds of towering conifers like so many toothpicks.

The children screamed in terror. LoAnna gathered everyone into 11-year-old Elijah’s bedroom, the one farthest from the falling hillside. There, she huddled with her loved ones and waited to die.

***

Tall, rugged, red-bearded Kris Langton and his father-in-law Ron McGuffin had left earlier that morning to haul a load of trash to the Arlington dump to the west. They were waiting their turn to unload McGuffin’s blue Ford Ranger, when the 31-year old carpenter got a hysterical call from his wife, LoAnna. The mountain had fallen, she cried. Houses had been swept away. People were screaming for help. Most of what she said was incomprehensible to Langton, but he got the gist: Landslide.

The men sped back toward Highway 530, and home.

***

Quinn Nations, 33, shook his head at the derelict farm truck his buddy, Isaac Hall, had just bought. It was older than either of them. It didn’t run. It had no brakes. The tires were mostly flat. But the burly logger obliged when Hall asked for his help getting it home to Darrington, east of Oso. As Hall towed it behind his other truck, Nations steered the heap along Highway 530. Pretty soon, Nations heard sirens behind them and figured they were about to get pulled over and ticketed. But the state patrol car whizzed right by. More sirens sounded in the distance. Something big had to be happening.

***

Traffic on 530 had come to a dead halt. Langton left his father-in-law in the truck and began jogging along the west side of the road. When people in stopped trucks and cars asked what was going on, he shouted, “Mudslide,” and kept going.

State patrol officers in blue uniforms were cutting power. Up beyond the emergency vehicles blocking traffic, the highway and everything on both sides of it were covered with a thick, wet, gray stew of sand, clay, snapped trees, and chunks of what used to be homes. A roof sat in the middle of where the road had been.

His family was on the other side. He waded in.

Officers who understood the risks of venturing beyond the perimeter they guarded shouted for him to stop—it was too dangerous. No one could yet say how deep the mud might be or what hazards might be swirling in it. More of the hill could fall at any moment. And with the slide debris blocking its natural flow, the river was rising.

“If you want to stop me, you’ll have to Tase me,” Langton hollered back, and kept going. Almost immediately, the mud came up to his knees, sucking him downward.

Shimmying across a fallen tree, he chose his next steps carefully, over logs, pieces of drywall, and unrecognizable detritus. It was slow going. Within five minutes, he heard a woman’s scream for help.

Following the sound of the voice through mud that was now waist high, jumping from tree to tree, scrambling over telephone poles and pieces of walls, he trekked with greater urgency.

Air bubbles popped in the muck. Small water geysers danced 6 inches off the surface. The river, choked off by the slide, was rising under the mud.

Soon, it became impossible to walk, so he belly crawled over the shattered gray-coated remnants of houses. It took him several minutes to reach the source of the cries, about 100 yards from the road. From the massive pile of debris “it looked like the house had just rolled,” says Langton.

At first, all he could see was an arm, reaching up through the ruins. He pulled away some smaller branches and a sofa cushion and there she was, a young, dark-haired woman, buried under broken pieces of walls, furniture, and trees. Her head was bloody and gashed. One eye socket was damaged. A huge laceration stretched across one arm.

And she was holding a tiny whimpering baby.

***

Quinn Nations and Isaac Hall were waiting for the traffic to clear on Highway 530 when a fellow logger, Kody Wesson, ran up and told them about the landslide.

“There are people out there screaming for help,” said Wesson.

Rushing to where officers had cordoned off the highway, the men insisted on joining the rescue effort, but there didn’t seem to be one. Police and firefighters stood at the edge of the slide, apparently awaiting instructions. One officer threatened to arrest the men if they tried to pass. Then, Nations heard a baby’s cry. “We’re going in,” he said, ignoring the threats. Several more people left their vehicles and followed the makeshift rescue crew into chest-high mud.

***

Langton yanked and clawed at the debris that had the woman trapped. Her name was Amanda, she said, and the baby’s name was Duke. He was five months old—almost the same age as Langton’s youngest child, Kristian. And he wasn’t looking good.

He had raccoon eyes, bumps and bruises on his face, and a trickle of blood coming from his mouth.

Amanda said she couldn’t feel her legs—another bad sign. Langton kept her engaged in calming talk while pulling away the hunks of wood, metal and furniture springs trapping mother and child.

At last, he was able to reach in and pull out baby Duke. By this time, Kody Wesson had made it to the site. Pulling off his sweatshirt, Langton turned it inside-out and wrapped the baby inside. He handed Duke to Wesson and went back to digging out Amanda.

Right behind Wesson, Nations and several others tossed down planks, logs, boards, parts of walls and roofs—anything they could find in the chaos to help make a bridge out of the mud to carry out the victims to waiting ambulances.

Wesson walked a few feet toward Nations, and sank almost to his neck, holding Duke above his head to keep him safe.

“I reached down and I grabbed the baby from him,” says Nations, “turned around and walked on a board, and gave him to the next guy behind me.” In that moment, Nations noticed that the tiny child had gone limp, and his eyes had rolled up in his head. Seconds mattered now. If they could just get him back to the road, a helicopter could airlift him to the ER. Duke got passed from hand to hand until an EMT at the edge of the slide took him in his arms. The child had stopped breathing, but a few quick CPR compressions brought a hearty cry. A copter whisked the baby away and the men turned back to help those still trapped.

About 75 yards away, Isaac Hall spied a small boy buried up to his waist and went to dig him out.

With baby Duke on his way to safety, “I went on in to help the momma,” says Nations.

One of the firefighters had carried a chainsaw into the mud from his rig. Now, Nations had something to work with. A “hook tender” with a logging company, he spent his days, powersaw in hand, climbing 40, 60, sometimes 100 feet up trees, sawing off all the limbs so the guys below could pull the trunk down.

“I saw that powersaw, I said, ‘hand it over,’” recalls Nations.

He told Amanda to be brave—he was going to be cutting very close to her body, but there was no other way. The stoic young mother covered her face and said, “Go for it.”

With the logger now taking the lead on freeing Amanda, and others helping, it was time for Langton to go. He was still a mile from C-Post Road. He had to find his own family.

For the next fifteen minutes, Nations sawed away as much debris as possible. He could see that Amanda’s legs were twisted at odd angles, both obviously broken.

Nations laid aside the saw. Her feet were still stuck underneath the debris, but he couldn’t risk sawing any further down. Conferring with two other rescuers, a firefighter and another civilian, they agreed that they had to yank her out, and hope they didn’t make her injuries worse. “Ma’am, this is going to hurt,” said the other civilian and Amanda nodded her understanding and consent. The two other men grabbed her under her shoulders while Nations reached down as far as he could into the debris and grabbed her legs close to her ankles. They all pulled at once. She cried out in agony—but she was free.

The three men carried Amanda out to where rescuers in one of the helicopters hovering above could bundle her into a basket.

As the chopper flew Amanda to the emergency room, Nations began slogging to where his buddy Isaac Hall was pulling the little boy from the mud, but search-and-rescue officials turned him back. From another hovering helicopter, a member of the rescue team descended in a sling, and Hall handed up little Jacob Spillers, 4 years old, then climbed aboard behind him.

***

Trudging again through a landscape turned upside down and inside out, Langton jumped from log to log. When one sank beneath him, he pulled himself up and kept on going.

The thought of his sweet LoAnna on the other side of the other-worldly wreckage kept him focused. They’d met at a fair when they were just 16 and married two years later. He needed to hear her voice, to know that she and his children were safe.

Up ahead, two houses had collided. One was now just half a house, lying on its side. He heard a moan coming from the ruins. It might be just a cow, he thought—but he knew he couldn’t take that chance.

Right then, he felt it with a certainty: LoAnna was all right. She’d called him after the mountain fell, so she hadn’t been trapped in the slide. Whoever was moaning needed him more.

LoAnna would understand. He said a quick prayer and went to help.

“I took two steps and jumped and just sunk into clay, up to my shoulder blades,” recalls Langton.

His arms and legs immobilized, he was sure this was the end. Then he realized that by wiggling his torso, he could get some forward momentum. A few minutes later, he’d shimmied his way out far enough to continue toward the ruins.

Passing the mangled remains of an RV and tractor, he climbed inside the rubble and found an older man buried in house debris and tree limbs. He was at least twice Langton’s weight and he’d probably been in the shower when the mountain fell. He had not a stitch on him. Alert and precise, with a speaking style that made Langton assume he was ex-military, the man told him his name was Tim Ward.

Langton began digging around the man and tugging at him, trying to pull him free, but Ward was solidly wedged. He heard the chop of a helicopter hovering above. Promising Ward he’d return, Langton climbed out of the rubble, onto the peak of the roof, hoping to flag it down. But by the time he got to the surface, it had flown past.

Returning to Ward, he asked the trapped man if anyone else had been in the house with him. Yes, Ward told Langton—his wife. Langton covered Ward with some sweater vests he found nearby and went looking for her, calling her name. What he heard in reply was the moan, not of a woman, but of another man, coming from the remnants of the second house.

He again tried to flag the circling helicopter, then crawled to where he heard the second voice. Following the sound to its source, he pulled away a microwave, shattered walls, and spare tires trying to find the second man, but he was buried too deeply for Langton to see him. The whirl of the helicopter’s rotors above grew louder. Langton climbed up on the roof again, met a member of the search and rescue team, and led him to Ward. Then he headed back to work on freeing the second man.

More people descended from the helicopter and went to help Ward as Langton  made progress on digging out the second man who, he could now see, was buried facedown inside a couch. He uncovered a thigh, an ankle. He kept digging.

“I move debris around him. I get the back of the head. I get an arm,” recalls Langton. The man said his name was Larry.

Langton finally got enough rubble out of the way to allow him to turn Larry over to face him. “And at that second, I see him, face is covered with dishrags and the rags are soaked with blood. The backs of his hands are peeled back.”

Langton assured Larry that he’d be back, and went to help the crew get Ward onto a stretcher.

“I grabbed full sheets of plywood with roofing and everything on them and I kind of made a trail, a path so we can drag him out onto the roof where everyone was.”

Once Tim Ward was in the helicopter, the crew came to help free Larry. It was time for Langton to leave it in their hands and go find his family.

***

Hours later, Langton finally reached home. The mud had taken out the house of a neighbor behind them but it stopped just shy of theirs. Propane was thick in the air from tanks that had been destroyed. His Suburban was gone, the truck he used for work, and all the tools had been pulled out—to make room for the nine people who had been at the house, Langton realized. So they were all safe. LoAnna had gotten everyone out. The Suburban seated nine people; the minivan, which she’d left behind, only seven.

Though the mud had spared them, the river was rising, and would soon flood the area. Kris Langton changed clothes, checked cars and houses nearby for survivors, then walked back out toward 530 through the rising water, hitching a ride with one of the cops to search-and-rescue’s ad hoc command center outside Darrington.

LoAnna had driven everyone to the home of one of the children who’d been playing with her kids when the mountain fell. An officer called to tell her, we’ve found your husband. Meet him at the command center.

The big carpenter’s heart swelled as he saw the car coming down the road. LoAnna pulled over, leapt out, and ran to him. He folded her into his arms and hugged her close for what seemed a long, long time, yet could never be long enough. Softly, he spoke as he held her, “Let’s go home, LoAnna. I’ve seen too much. Take me home.”

EPILOGUE

The mud stopped just short of their property, but Kris and LoAnna Langton no longer had a home to go to. The flow of the Stillaguamish River, choked by the slide debris, filled their house with three to four feet of water. They now live in Arlington, 12 miles west of Oso.

Just nine survivors were pulled from the mud that day. Langton, Nations, Wesson, Hall and the other civilians who disregarded threats and orders from officials are probably the only reason that five of them are still alive. Despite grievous injuries, all are recovering.

Although Langton, Nations, and other locals and officials worked together to continue the search, after the day of the mudslide, no one else was pulled out alive.

Over the next several weeks, Nations took charge of the grim task of finding the bodies of the 43 people who lost their lives. The last victim, 44-year-old Kris Regelbrugge, was pulled from the debris on July 22, exactly four months after the mudslide.

###

What Brought

The Hillside Down?

To understand what caused the Oso mudslide of March 22, 2014, you have to go back thousands of years to a time when massive mountain glaciers began slowly sliding down the slopes of the Cascades, eroding the mountainsides’ surface, crushing it into sand and gravel.

Rivers draining out of the Cascades picked up vast quantities of this sediment and deposited it onto the clay below, sometimes hundreds of feet deep. Over many millennia, the rivers’ flow cut through the sediment, carving steep valley walls such as the 600-foot high hill in Oso.

As solid as the tree-blanketed hillside might have appeared, it was still mostly sand and gravel. “You can kick it with your boot and it will fall apart,” says geomorphologist Daniel J. Miller of Earth Systems Institute in Seattle, Washington, who did geologic studies of the area in the 1990s, and detailed numerous prior landslides at the site.

The Seattle Times reported that county officials knew of the hazards and after earlier, smaller landslides, considered buying out landowners. But nothing was ever done.

When rains saturated the hill this time, the soft sediment could no longer hold the wall’s face together—and like a sand castle drenched with a bucket of seawater, it crumbled. In less than two minutes, mud buried approximately one square mile (2.6 square kilometers) around Oso to depths up to six meters.