OSO, Wash. -- A day like this is planned meticulously, down to every minute, but it didn't feel overwhelming standing inside the Oso fire station. Instead, it was more relaxed, cordial, the firefighters of Oso, standing around, having coffee, while the media swarmed.
The CNN crew and our crew were outnumbered by the White House media staff, buzzing around, checking shots, lighting, taking calls texts about the inevitable arrival. No matter how relaxed anyone felt, the importance of the day couldn't be denied. Would President Obama have stopped if this wasn't "on the way" to a very important Asia trip? A trip cancelled due to government shut down last fall. Who knowsbut it doesn't -- shouldn't take away from the significance.
The president would soon step inside this firehouse -- a building that became a base of operations when a wall of mud covered dozens of homes. A building where words of love and support now adorn the wallsposters from schools, organizations, cities saying "thank you" to the people who spend days, weeks - now a month, searching for those lost on March 22 -- one month ago today; an anniversary not lost on those standing around the Oso firehouse.
The firefighters, the volunteers, even the media swarm stopped in silence at 10:37 a.m. This was not a time to set up lights, plug in cameras, check sound levels, this was a time to pay tribute, even for just one minute, to the victims recovered and identified, and those still missing.
The minute passed, the work continued, but this time with a little more reverence. One minute reminded us why we were here, why the president was coming.
A side conversation followed, amidst the chaos, with a public information officer from a different city's police department. She spent days helping corral media crews to and from the site of the slide. She spent time in the community, and she saw what the term "Oso strong" really means. We talked about this, how time of tragedy brings out the best -- is "best" the right word? Brings out the strength of a community. A time that renews our faith in humanity, despite the burden, despite the loss. Can any community prepare for the onslaught of attention when something like this happens?
She and I agreed, the answer is no, and no one can fault those who've faced such tragedy for not wanting their face, their voice, to be pulled from anonymity for a 10-second soundbite to "feed the beast." The cameras are intrusive, can be intrusive, but can also be a way to show the world: Look what they faced, look how they faced it. Look at their strength, and let their strength inspire you.
Hour 5, and now we stand outside, but unable to look in. Across the street from the Oso firehouse, with the rest of the media, as security sweeps the equipment left behind inside. A large FEMA trailer blocks our view as a crowd starts to build along the highway in hopes of getting their own view of the president. Some from Arlington, Darrington, Marysville, and yes, some from Oso. But we're told some residents of the town hosting the presidential visit don't want to be a part of it -- not that they don't appreciate the sentiment, but the circus surrounding it is too much. Who can blame them? After four weeks, the streets were starting to become theirs again, only to be taken over by media, law enforcement and the Secret Service.
The relaxed feeling inside the firehouse from the morning is less so outside now. Officers and K9's are searching cars along the motorcade route. Does this SUV belong to anyone? No response, and the tow truck is on the way. The sweep continues as we return to the firehouse. After a quick (and thorough) search of my bag and wave of the security wand, it's back to our car to await instructions.
When we're allowed back into the firehouse, our 6th hour of the day, the firehouse is filling up with first responders, volunteers, and of course a growing media presence. Among the crowd, familiar faces from a month of stories: a fire chief, a mayor, a state trooper, a trooper who was first on the scene and pulled a baby from the mud, a baby who survived with his mother. These are the faces of heroism, the faces the president will speak to, thank, and share with the world. A day of waiting, turns into an afternoon of waiting. Every time the door opens, every phone in the room is raised, camera ready, but slowly dropped in disappointment. Thirty minutes late, but can you fault a late arrival, when it means more time for him with the mudslide survivors...the families of those killed?
The president arrives and speaks surrounded by political figures - those who push for the government to lend a hand when a crisis like this hits. The president inspires, offers gratitude, mispronounces Oso, misidentifies a fire chief, and continues to speak. A wince at the errors brushed off with the understanding why he is here: to show the world what happens when a community devastated comes together, pushes forward, shows strength.
The president brought a message, yes, but he also delivered a message from the communities of Oso, Arlington and Darrington: we're still here...we will thrive...the lost are gone, but not forgotten...and in their memory, we live our lives.
The speech ends, hands are shaken, hugs received. A few are willing to step in front of our camera, to offer thanks to the president, each repeating how much this community means to them, what the support from other communities means to them and the promise they will continue to stand strong. Oso strong. With hashtags, T-shirts and signs, the message is repeated, but no matter how many times, it does not dilute. Because it says something...means something...no piece of earth will ever be able to take away.