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Oso heroes receive thanks

From left, Oso firefighters Steve Jahn, Willy Harper, Toby Hyde, Ryan Olson and Tim Harper confirm that the epicenter of the slide was placed correctly on the map. - Kirk Boxleitner
From left, Oso firefighters Steve Jahn, Willy Harper, Toby Hyde, Ryan Olson and Tim Harper confirm that the epicenter of the slide was placed correctly on the map.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

DARRINGTON — Months after their initial efforts in response to the Highway 530 slide, Darrington and Oso firefighters received a show of support from visiting employees of Rairdon Dodge Chrysler Jeep of Marysville.

Both fire stations had scheduled training Aug. 12, so the Rairdon employees spent nearly $200 on 20 pizza, 10 breadsticks and six 2-liter bottles of soda from Little Caesar's, which they delivered in a 2014 Jeep Wrangler that had been customized in remembrance of the March 22 slide.

Rairdon parts adviser James Biddle had spent two months customizing the jeep, whose back windows bear "Oso Strong" labels, and whose front hood is covered with a topographical map of the slide area, with a red dot marking the epicenter.

"We're calling it the tribute edition," Biddle said of the custom Jeep, which the dealership plans to sell at cost for nearly $27,000. "These firefighters helped out those who lost so much. My cousin came from Eastern Washington to help out as part of the National Guard, so I could connect to that."

Les Hays, the dealership's recon manager, not only helped a close friend recover from losing his parents and grandparents in the slide, but also saw a number of customers after the slide who'd been impacted by it.

"One lady came in, escorted by military people," Hays said. "She'd lost her entire family, so she bought a Ram and a big camper. She planned to go on a cross-country trip. A couple came in from Darrington, who'd been stranded on the Arlington side of the slide, needing a water pump for their truck, so we hooked them right up."

When Hays and Biddle made their first stop at the Darrington fire station, they handed out nearly half of their coupons for free oil changes to more than 20 personnel on site, including emergency medical technicians Darin and Martha Park.

"Did you replace the water pump in our truck?" Martha asked. "Because we really appreciated that, and made sure to spread the word about your good deed. We were in tears that week."

"It was like a double-whammy, because we couldn't get back home, and the one rig we had for transportation didn't work," Darin said.

"We wanted to wait until the dust had settled, before we came by with pizza and coupons," Hays said. "We wanted to give you a chance to collect yourselves, and to let you know people are still thinking about you after the fact."

Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper and his crew hadn't even expected the Rairdon employees that night.

"Please tell me I placed the red dot in the right location for the slide," Biddle laughed.

"No, you got it right," Harper said, as he and 10 of his nearly 20 firefighters studied the map on the Jeep's hood.

Darrington fire safety officer Jeff McClelland explained that he and his fellow responders had been more busy keeping up with the area's regular fire and medical calls than with assisting the search and recovery efforts in the wake of the slide. However, the slide permanently recalibrated their work, even after both lanes of 530 were reopened.

"Before, it was tense when we were transporting critical patients through the hills on the bypass route," McClelland said. "Even now, though, it hasn't gone back to what was normal. This is the new normal."

Even as the Darrington Fire District has sought to replace gear that it lost in the slide, it's also had to manage surpluses of other supplies, thanks to donations nationwide.

"People have been fantastically generous, from Texas to Tennessee," McClelland said. "They sent us more water, towels, boots and chainsaws than we need, so we've paid that forward by sending the excess to the folks in Pateros, as they recover from their fire. Their need is greater than our own right now."

With the immediate crises in the wake of the slide long since tamped down, McClelland noted the emotional toll on the Darrington and Oso fire personnel.

"We still feel it today," McClelland said. "When I drive to Arlington on 530, and pass through the slide site, I feel very sad. We all do. At the same time, I think we can take pride in our accomplishments. This department and this community did some great things."

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