Tom and Karen Pszonka get along the best they can after losing their daughter, two grandchildren, son-in-law and his parents in the Oso landslide.

Share story

MARYSVILLE — Tom and Karen Pszonka don’t have pictures of their daughter or her two little boys on the walls. They can’t bear to see them.

They don’t host family get-togethers like they used to. They don’t even want to live in the spacious house they built on the water in Marysville so their clan of four kids, their spouses and all the grandchildren would always have a place to come home to.

 A year later


A look back

Click the photo above to see The Seattle Times’ complete coverage of the Oso landslide, including investigative stories, profiles of the victims, interactive maps and a photo gallery.

When Tom looks out of the house toward the water, no matter what time of year, he sees his grandsons Hunter and Wyatt “clear as day” running for Easter eggs, and it breaks his heart.

Hunter, 6, Wyatt, 4, their mother Katie Pszonka Ruthven, their father Shane Ruthven and Shane’s parents, JuDee and Lou Vandenburg, are all gone.

Three generations of a family wiped out, among the 43 people who died one year ago in the nation’s deadliest landslide.

Like many other families pounded by grief, the Pszonkas are trying simply to make it through. The cards and quilts and meals and letters that poured in helped, and they have been humbled by the kindness of friends and strangers.

They’ve begun to find solace in building legacies that will memorialize their daughter and grandsons. At the preschool the boys attended, they’ve built a playground in the children’s names and another is planned for Hunter’s elementary school. They’ve also started a scholarship in Katie’s honor for University of Washington students from Mill Creek and Arlington.

“She was all about education,” said her father. “She really believed in it.”

One day, they hope, they will be able to take joy in happy memories.

But for now, what’s been lost is “my first thought in the morning and my last thought at night,” said Karen, a retired nurse.

Tom, who spent 30 years in law enforcement before retiring from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, said he understands now what it means when someone talks about a life sentence. “This is a life sentence without the possibility of parole and no good time.”

Tattoo therapy

When the Pszonkas learned there’d been a landslide on Highway 530, they assumed it was small. Perhaps it had shut down the road. They weren’t too worried.

But then no one could get a hold of Katie — a graduate of Jackson High School in Mill Creek and a proud University of Washington Husky.

Katie, 34, their second child, had been easy to raise despite a stubborn streak, her mother said.

She started out in pre-med at the UW, then switched to pre-law and worked as a paralegal until she and Shane, 43, started a business of their own, Mountain Lion Glass.

Tom and Karen Pszonka say getting tattoos that remind them of their lost loved ones — a family portrait, left, and Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle, right — has helped them get through the past year.  (Mark Harrison/The Seattle Times)
Tom and Karen Pszonka say getting tattoos that remind them of their lost loved ones — a family portrait, left, and Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle, right — has helped them get through the past year. (Mark Harrison/The Seattle Times)

The couple built their dream home from an A-framed cottage on the banks of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. It was a beautiful place that even now Tom Pszonka said he cannot despise.

There, Katie and Shane created a little haven for their children and extended family where folks could ride four-wheelers and motorcycles, go fishing and boating and be close to hunting.

At the end of that Saturday, when they still hadn’t heard from Katie, Tom got on the computer and started looking at pictures and maps of the slide area on Google Earth. He said he knew when he saw the pictures that his daughter and grandsons were dead.

A short time later, a former colleague confirmed it for him: “There’s nobody alive up here, Tom.”

At first, the Pszonkas were in shock. They could hardly believe what had happened. They couldn’t talk to anyone, or each other, about the depths of their grief.

In the immediate wake of the disaster, the family found some relief in an unexpected place — an Everett tattoo parlor where every member of the family had something created in honor of Katie and Shane and the boys.

“We were in shock. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves,” said Karen. “But it ended up being therapy.”

Tom’s tattoo is a portrait of his daughter and her family. “I couldn’t look at photos, but I can look at this, “ said Tom, pointing to his leg, where Katie and her family are inked across the front of his right shin. “This is my way of keeping them with me.”

Because Katie and her boys loved Disney, Karen’s leg bears a tattoo of Disney’s Cinderella Castle.

‘We cry every day’

At a grief-support group in Arlington that Karen attends with her daughter Jessica Lutz, she’s seen how differently people handle loss.

At the same time, she’s learned there are shared, almost universal reactions. Karen first thought she was just getting old when she couldn’t remember simple things, but she learned from other survivors that short-term memory loss is common.

So, too, is insomnia, and many Oso survivors have found they can’t sleep, she said. Some have resigned themselves to reading, watching movies and doing puzzles at night. Others, like Tom, have accepted pharmaceutical remedies.

They’ve all learned, too, that time doesn’t diminish the pain.

“It’s like a dagger when someone says it should be better now that a year has passed. A year is not very long, and even so this is a pain that will never leave. This is now our life,” said Karen.

“People ask how you are and you can’t tell them the truth,” said Tom. “They don’t want to hear about how painful it is. They wouldn’t believe it.”

“We cry every day,” said Karen.

They are among many other survivors who have filed lawsuits against Snohomish County and the state, claiming the landslide could have been predicted and many of the deaths were preventable.

“It’s not about the money,” said Karen. “There is no way Katie would have lived there if she’d known the risks, but someone knew the risks, and we don’t want other families to go through what we’ve been through.”

Tom and Karen had been the primary sitters for Hunter and Wyatt and three of their four other grandchildren.

Every day, one of them would pick up all of the children from their schools in Arlington, bring them home and care for the swarm of kids until their parents picked them up.

If the responsibility for caring for those other grandchildren hadn’t been theirs, both said they don’t know what they would have done.

“If it weren’t for these three,” said Karen gesturing to the other young grandchildren they care for — Peighton, Basia and Liam, “we would never have gotten out of bed.”

One of the Pszonkas’ favorite places to take the grandchildren now is the playground at Northwest Children’s School in Arlington dedicated to Hunter and Wyatt. It makes Karen happy to hear kids laughing and to know that children who never knew her grandboys will play there for years to come.

She and Tom hold on to the memories of Hunter, Wyatt, Katie, Shane, JuDee and Lou, and they cherish a few small items, some recovered from the mud.

They have Katie and Shane’s driver’s licenses and Katie’s purse. Tom treasures Hunter’s football, found at the slide site. And Karen carries with her a pillow made from Wyatt’s blanket, left behind at his parents’ glass shop.

“He left this for me,” she says, burying her face into the pillow and breathing in the now faint smell of the little boy’s scent. “He knew his grandma would need it.”