Joel Johnson, a young chaplain, was at the site of the slide for two or three weeks straight, offering counsel, digging out bodies, whatever he could do to help.

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OSO, Snohomish County — The disturbing dreams still come, although it’s been three weeks, maybe a month, since the last one.

The question he has for God is still there, too.

 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.

A year ago, Joel Johnson was at the Oso landslide, for two or three weeks straight, as a chaplain, digging bodies, whatever way he could help. He is all of 29.

Weekend events


11 a.m.: A Darrington Library meeting room will be dedicated to retired librarian Linda McPherson, who died in the slide.

1 p.m.: “Oso Strong — 1 Year After” at Rhodes River Ranch at Oso is a concert, buffet and auction to benefit the Oso Fire Department and Oso Firemen’s Association. Backers describe it not as a celebration but as a time of healing and community.


9 a.m. to noon: Highway 530 will be closed through the slide zone. At the slide site, a solemn event will be held for families of those who died, plus first responders, slide volunteers and local residents. This observance is not for the general public, but the public is invited to other Sunday events.

Noon to 4 p.m.: “Soup Social & Open House” at the Oso Fire Department.

1 p.m.: Community potluck dinner at the Darrington Community Center.

1-3 p.m.: Open house at the Darrington Fire Department, with an ongoing presentation about the slide, along with a display of donated artifacts from the slide.

Johnson forgets the exact number of days he was there, either 33 or 38.

It’s not for the pay that they do it. Volunteers at Snohomish County Fire District 25 get $5 a call.

One of the dreams repeats itself.

In the dream, he’s there just off Highway 530 and Steelhead Drive, by the valley of death in which 43 were engulfed.

It takes less than a minute to drive by the site. But so much mud and debris was moved that it’d fill a football field to the height of nearly eight Space Needles stacked on top of each other.

It looks peaceful now, with memorial trees that have been planted and greenery returning. In spots, lone trees that were swept down and ended upright have managed to survive.

“It’s anything but peaceful to me,” says Johnson, as he stands alongside 530.

Johnson was part of the recovery of six of those bodies.

The best tool to dig through the soft, sometimes soupy, slide, he says, was a spud rake, the kind used to turn over potatoes. It’s got a long handle and three or four tines.

When somebody would yell out that they thought they had found a body, all other digging would stop. The volunteers would go in and turn over the mud by hand, to make sure they’d find any personal belongings.

The bodies, he says, “looked normal but they were covered in mud and clay and stuff.”

In the dream, Johnson is standing there and the slide starts again.

Johnson sees a wall of mud and debris coming at him. Sometimes it’s in the distance, sometimes it’s about to hit and swallow him, just like happened to those 43.

Then he wakes up.

His wife, Brianna Johnson, sometimes is the one who gently wakes him up.

Joel is fidgeting once again, the kind of nervousness you show when dreaming. Sometimes he calls out in his sleep.

“Not necessarily any words, more like a yell,” says Brianna.

Such a dream is not uncommon for those who’ve gone through such traumatic situations, says Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, and editor of the book, “Trauma and Dreams.”

“I think there is a ‘survivor’s guilt,’ ” she says. “For whatever reason, you’re putting yourself in the place of the person that died. You’re recreating the situation you feared.”

Over time, the dreams sometimes get milder, but not always, says Barrett.

Those with the same repeating dream can do something as they fall asleep.

They can start thinking out how they’d change the ending — that they walk away from the landslide, that they’re standing there, but it is green again.

It can work, says Barrett.

Johnson and his wife moved to Arlington three years ago.

They met in Bible college in Missouri and both began working for the Assemblies of God as pastors at the Arlington branch of the church in Snohomish County.

Their baby daughter, Jaelyn, just turned a year old.

Johnson doesn’t mind telling people he’s been seeing a counselor.

He knows how it is with firefighter types, medic types. You keep it in, tough it out.

The couple had only brought their baby girl from the hospital a few days earlier when Johnson’s pager went off on Saturday morning.

For the next month, he’d get maybe five or six hours sleep a night.

Willy Harper, the fire chief at Oso, spent the most hours in the search.

He estimates the volunteer firefighters, who grew from an initial 12 to 19, put in more than 2,000 hours total.

Harper says he, too, has also experienced emotion changes — “My wife might see it.”

But, he says about the firefighters, “to be honest, they’re not going to open up.”

There’s something else that someone in Johnson’s position has had to deal with.

“It’s the ‘Why?’ question,” he says.

Why would a compassionate God allow such a tragedy?

Some who had relatives or friends die in the landslide asked a variation of that question, says Johnson.

“I’d ask those questions myself,” he says. “Why did these innocent people have to pay the ultimate sacrifice?”

The chaplain wrestled with an answer.

“I don’t believe a vindictive God did this. I don’t believe this was part of a judgment or retribution,” says Johnson.

To the families, and to himself, he tried to make sense of the tragedy.

“I’d compare our Earth to our bodies. Just as our bodies fall apart, the world we live in is not meant to last,” says Johnson.

Still, he says, “Ultimately, I came back to I don’t know why it had to happen the way it did. Those three words: I don’t know.”

These days, Johnson goes out on calls, sometimes using his medic skills, sometimes as the comforting chaplain. Sometimes, he says, he has to drive by that spot on 530 and Steelhead Drive.

He looks up a Bible verse on his smartphone to make sure he has the wording right.

There it is, the “New Living Translation” version of Psalm 119, Verse 116:

“Lord, sustain me as you promised, that I may live! Do not let my hope be crushed.”


“This is what I personally have held onto,” he says.