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Witness to Disaster

September 25, 2014

While covering the Oso landslide, Seattle photo journalist Josh Trujillo learned an eye opening lesson about nature's unpredictability and most of all, how people respond to disaster.

Oso, Washington -

Josh Trujillo: This van was really where I was living, it was my mobile newsroom.

Enrique Cerna: Over the three weeks he spent covering the Oso mudslide out of his aging, but reliable VW van.

Trujillo: It helped me to insert myself into this story and stay here.

Cerna: Seattle photo journalist Josh Trujillo learned an eye opening lesson about nature's unpredictability and most of all, how people respond to disaster.

Trujillo: And it helped me bond with some of the people in the community because there’s that crazy journalist out there living in his van and people almost felt this guy is dedicated to this story.

Cerna: The bonding began as soon as Josh arrived in Oso. A local couple gave him access to their property so he could make his way to the disaster area. What he saw, took him aback.

Trujillo: I was stunned, completely stunned. I know it was probably one of the worse things I’ve ever seen. It was challenging to bring that to people in an effective way. And I still think I was not completely successful at showing people how vast and huge this damage was.

Cerna: As you are out there, you’re walking through the debris, there were homes there, families lived there, the remnants of what they had.

Trujillo: That was one of the hardest things, you know stepping over items knowing that this was somebody’s life that’s now shattered and spread about this mud field. I really tried to avoid really stepping on anything that looked like it was a personal item. I felt like I was in a graveyard. I worked as best as I possibly could to respect that. It felt like sacred ground.

Cerna: Still vivid for Josh are sights and sounds of the search and rescue crews coming through the mud and debris. And there were the locals from Darrington and Arlington, the family members, their friends and others, compelled to join in the search for those hit by the slide. Among them Matt Pater, a Iraq War veteran and local youth sports coach.

Trujillo: I probably spent about an hour out there with him, I guess. Just watching him work and making sure he wasn’t putting himself in a too precarious a situation.

Matt Pater: I was in the infantry so we did a lot of out in the land digging through stuff, for fellow soldiers and stuff like this and casualty of war, so I think I have the ability to help out so I’m not going to sit at home and do nothing when I can help. You know miracles happen every day. There could be somebody in an air pocket and the air flows through that they’re holding on for someone like me, or you guys, to find them. You don’t give up hope.

Cerna: Eventually, rescue became recovery.

Trujillo: That was, for me, one of the striking moments.

Cerna: For Josh Trujillo, that moment came as he encountered a team carrying a body from the slide area.

Trujillo: And it looked like a funeral procession. They all had their heads bowed, they were walking slowly. I had nowhere to go back because I was standing up against where it became water and mud. So I stayed where I was and they walked passed me and I lifted my camera and made a couple of pictures and my heart was racing and they continued on.  I told one of the men leading the team, I said, "You’re doing God’s work out here," and I think I chose my words right because it turned out he was a pastor at one point in his career

You had to work with sensitivity, that was my challenge and that was my goal, to work with compassion and sensitivity because I was here in a community that had just experienced massive tragedy and I knew that I was working with people who were either vulnerable or traumatized.

Cerna: Still, there were people like Reid Miller of Darrington who wanted to share his story. He lost his son, his home and nearly all his belongings. Yet, he wanted to express his appreciation to all those that helped him and other victim's families.

Reed Miller: People have been so generous. They brought my furniture up here. I got cards in the mail from people I never heard of with money in them. Wow. Yeah.

Trujillo: What do you have to say those folks?

Miller: Thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s amazing, I had no idea the world had good people like that.

Cerna:  When the President came to Oso, what do you think that meant to this community?

Trujillo: Having a leader an entire nation come to pay respects, says something. Being in that fire station when he was shaking hands and thanking rescuers was pretty powerful and, you know, to see their appreciation for paying a visit to their small community, I think was important.

Cerna:  About two months after the slide, finally the reopening of highway 530 and you were there.

Trujillo: That was another moment that was striking and powerful. The people meeting, meeting in the middle and looking over the landscape many for the first time and there were some people in that crowd that were survivors, some people who lost family members and it was a very raw emotional time. And at that point, you know, again I feel as though I’d earned trust from the people in the community and was welcomed in and actually asked to walk along with a family. I think folks here taught me a lot. The can do spirit that I witnessed. It really got me thinking a lot about how we respond to one another, how we help each other out and how important it is that we do that.

Lot of moments, lot of things I experienced during this time here that will definitely stick with me.



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Enrique Cerna

The son of Mexican immigrants, Enrique Cerna was born and raised in the Yakima Valley.  Enrique joined KCTS 9 in January, 1995. He has anchored current affairs programs, moderated statewide political debates, produced and reported stories for national PBS programs in addition to local documentaries on social and juvenile justice, the environment and Latinos in Washington State.

Enrique has earned nine Northwest Emmy Awards and numerous other honors. In June, 2013, he was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter’s Silver Circle for his work as a television professional.

More stories by Enrique Cerna