The Oso landslide on March 22, 2014 — the deadliest in American history — wiped out a community's landmark mailboxes, along with many of the people they belonged to.
“Take a left at the mailboxes,” Katie Pszonka Ruthven would say to friends coming over to her house on Steelhead Drive in Snohomish County.
Their road didn’t have a street sign, but the cluster of neighborhood mailboxes at the end of road served as landmark. Turning at the mailboxes would take you down a meandering gravel road through the woods and to the Ruthvens’ rustic cabin by the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
Karen Pszonka, Katie’s mother, recalls the many parties held at her daughter’s Oso cabin fondly, and how the dogs and children eagerly waded into the river. “They don’t care how cold the water is. They would go in and stay in there forever,” she said.
The Oso landslide on March 22, 2014 — the deadliest in American history — took away the familiar mailboxes, along with many of the people they belonged to.
Among those killed were Katie, her husband Shane Ruthven, their two sons, Hunter, 6, Wyatt, 4, and Shane’s parents, JuDee and Lou Vandenburg.
Now, the SR 530 Slide Memorial Committee is seeking to commission a sculpture of those 19 mail and newspaper boxes that formerly served as a neighborhood gathering spot, where birthday balloons once hung in celebration. The Snohomish County Arts Commission has set aside $30,000 for the sculpture, which will become a part of the entrance to the larger proposed 14-acre memorial property.
The committee is seeking a representative sculpture that is as accurate as possible, durable and, at least initially, portable.
When Seth Jefferds returns to the site to water the flowers he planted for his wife Christina and his 4-month-old granddaughter Sanoah Huestis, who were among the 43 people who died in the slide, he sometimes encounters people who ask him what happened there.
He proposed recreating the mailboxes as a way to remind people that a vibrant neighborhood once existed there.
“It’s not just a scar in the environment,” Jefferds said.
Hal Gausman, who oversees art and culture for Snohomish County Parks and Recreation, said he sees potential for this project to help with healing and to allow the public to engage with the Steelhead Drive community, perhaps by leaving messages in the mailbox sculpture.
“How do you make it represent an individual — more than a number on the side?” is a question that he hopes artists will wrestle with in designing the mailboxes.
Before the committee permanently installs the sculpture, they hope to take it on tour to generate more interest and support for the memorial, according to Gausman, the manager of the sculpture project.
Snohomish County Parks has set aside $250,000 in seed money for the memorial, but hopes to help the families of victims raise $6 million, spokeswoman Shannon Hays said. The money will go toward permitting, civil engineering, construction and long-term maintenance of the memorial.
They hope to break ground on March 22, 2019 — the five-year anniversary of the slide, Hays said.
The families of victims, survivors and first-responders have been meeting with a Parks team for a year and a half to create a plan for the memorial. Parks then hired a architecture and design firm to develop the plan and memorial exhibits.
For Pszonka, the memorial serves not only as a reminder of the 43 victims, but also as a way to thank the hundreds of first-responders.
“There’s no way I could write 900 thank-you notes to the people who put their lives on hold,” Pszonka said.
The Memorial Committee is requesting that artists submit proposals before 5 p.m. July 3 to Hal Gausman, Snohomish County Arts Commission, 14405 179th Ave. S.E., Monroe, WA 98272. Gausman can be reached by email at Hal.Gausman@snoco.org or by phone at 360-805-6729.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.