And down came the hill
Five people hurt as slide rolls into a local residence
Looking back, Sammy Bazzaz said the sound of a rumble was probably a helpful thing.
Standing in his kitchen with five friends early on the morning of Jan. 2, the sudden noise caused them to step away from windows, where a moment later mud and debris washed through the wall of the home at 17661 Woodhurst Place.
Later, nearly everyone in the Portland region would know how the six friends survived a sudden mudslide that devastated the Bazzaz home in an upscale subdivision across from Marylhurst University.
But seconds before the mudslide it was an ordinary Thursday night. Bazzaz, 23, said his friends phoned and asked to pay a visit while he was home alone at his family's house. The rest of the Bazzaz family was on a New Year's trip to British Columbia.
'We were just in the kitchen eating late night snacks and that's when we heard, kind of like thunder, but in the ground,' he said.
Though what happened next lasted only four or five seconds, Bazzaz said he can still see it in slow motion: The windows crashing in, the lights cutting out, an avalanche of mud and debris washing through the room.
Where he stood, he said, the floor gave way at his feet.
'I got away unscathed … the ground literally stopped breaking right were I was standing … like when a bus passes in front of you,' said Bazzaz.
But in what many believe is an extraordinary outcome, all six people inside the house came away with only minor injuries. When the thunder first sounded, said Bazzaz, they began to pivot, turn, take small - perhaps critical - steps.
Those few movements may have prevented anyone from being buried by the debris, Bazzaz said.
Instead, 'the mud and debris pushed them, not toward the ground, but other rooms,' he said.
As the kitchen and living room floors collapsed, most were tossed to other areas of the second floor or on top of piles of the collapsed interior.
'It stops. And then a whole river was going through the house. It makes it harder to hear anybody,' said Bazzaz.
Over the sound of rushing water, he called for his friends in the dark. One was standing beside him. One had been thrown more than 20 feet into the dining room, another roughly 30 feet to his parents' bedroom. Two others had fallen through openings in the floor and were pulled to safety.
As the group gathered, Bazzaz said it was impossible to see how much of the darkened house was left standing.
'I knew obviously something had hit the house and I just didn't want to be in there if the house collapsed,' he said.
The group - five men and one woman - moved quickly through an undamaged laundry room and out a side door. In the street they stood covered in mud, some confused and upset, one woozy and in severe shock.
All but Bazzaz had suffered injuries either from being thrown or from tumbling with the moving furniture and debris. One man, who was struck by a granite countertop as it came loose from a kitchen island, suffered an broken arm that required surgery.
Bazzaz opted not to name the five other victims without their permission.
He said their first call was to 9-1-1.
Then he placed another.
* * *
Alan Bazzaz and his wife Fatma were in British Columbia with 14-year-old daughter Dahlia, celebrating the New Year.
They got the call from their son shortly after 1 a.m. and, after hurrying to their car, they began a stressful drive that would last through much of the night.
By noon, Alan Bazzaz was standing sleepless among firefighters, geotechnical experts, police and reporters, watching water from a nearby hill chart a muddy course into his home's first floor. It fell, like his kitchen and living room, into a first-floor garage, then carved its way down the driveway, into the street, finally to city sewers.
The Lake Oswego Fire Department evacuated 28 people from 21 homes on Woodhurst Place and Brookhurst Drive following the mudslide. Later Friday, all but two returned home.
The Bazzaz family, however, and a next door neighbor endangered by the slipping hillside, would have no option but to leave.
The Bazzaz's three-story home, valued at more than $1 million, is ruined. The supports beneath its top floor have been washed away. There is no staircase leading to intact rooms, places where the family hopes to recover belongings.
From the outside, portions of the home's interior can be seen jutting from the north side of the house, including a damaged gas line. On the second story, a bathroom shower dangles above the yard, encased in remnants of an interior wall.
Experts are still trying to piece together what happened on the hillside as three inches of rain fell in the Portland region Jan. 1. Geotechnical experts from Shannon and Wilson, Inc. have evaluated the area and plan a report to the city later this week.
Those experts initially said the mudslide was secondary to a larger slide that occurred on Green Bluff Drive. That mudslide damaged a home under construction at 17554 Green Bluff Drive, where no one was injured.
And while he is anxious to know what caused the problems, Bazzaz is also grateful.
'I am so thankful that these kids were not hurt seriously and that my son is safe,' Bazzaz said. 'The rest can be managed somehow.'
But exactly how is a question that will resolve itself slowly.
Bazzaz said an initial evaluation from his insurance company indicates insurance will not cover the loss of the home.
He said lingering questions about whether the family may be eligible for any government relief will complicate any quick route forward. He and his family are currently staying at the home of an adult son in Camas, Wash.
Until the mudslide, the family lived in the Woodhurst Place home for five years. Alan and Fatma Bazzaz immigrated from Iraq 30 years ago and moved to Woodhurst Place from Eugene after finding the home of their dreams.
'All of our memories are in there, all of our life's collections are in there,' said Bazzaz.
At a Lake Oswego Rotary Club meeting on Monday, he asked for advice from the Lake Oswego community on navigating the road ahead.
He described it as a road lined with emotional strife and financial challenges, insurance policies and government programs and the support already flowing from the many friends the family has made in Lake Oswego.
'That's the only thing that brings tears to my eyes. What a blessing where we live and the type of people that are around,' said Bazzaz.
And what sadness, he added, to lose a home and leave a community.
'The key thing that we have here in the Portland area - and I spent most of the weekend visiting the many, many landslides that we had - is that we are really ripe for landslides. We have a lot of steep slopes, number one. Number two we have a lot of weak soil. And then you add to it the water and that causes the landslides.'
In Lake Oswego:
'That was just a case of, actually a landslide above the house causing the water coming across a road above the house to concentrate in back of the house on the slope. And then that slope failed and went right into the house. The people are very lucky to have their lives.'
- Scott Burns, professor of geology at Portland State University, courtesy KPAM Radio.