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Register-Guard: Eugene Native Lost In Mudslide Confirmed Dead

The Register Guard | April 2, 2014 8 p.m. | Updated: April 3, 2014 7:58 a.m. | Eugene, Oregon

Contributed By:

Jeff Wright

The official confirmation that South Eugene High School graduate Tom Durnell was among the victims in last month’s mudslide in Washington state provides limited solace to family members, Durnell’s older brother said Wednesday.

Within just a couple of days after the March 22 slide, “the entire family was pretty well convinced that all of the miracles had happened and we weren’t going to get Tom back alive,” said Bob Durnell of Eugene. “We all faced his death in some manner all through the week. I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of difference that the medical examiner makes it official or not.”

The Snohomish County medical examiner’s office said this week it has received a total of 29 victims and, so far, has released the identities of 25 — including Tom Durnell, 65.

Bob Durnell, 68, said he returned home to Eugene this past Sunday after spending a week in a middle school gymnasium in Arlington, Wash., not far from the community of Oso where the mudslide occurred. He and other family members were there hoping for a better if unlikely outcome as searchers continued to comb the area.

Bob Durnell said he is grateful that, while there, “I met some of those miracles and am glad that I could” — referencing some of the disaster’s survivors, including a 4-year-old boy.

Durnell described his younger brother “an an absolutely caring, giving, loving person — and he was probably a better punster that any of us could hope to be. Anyone who knew him would say his humor was foremost.”

Tom Durnell’s passion for puns, perhaps, could not be helped: “I think it’s in the family DNA,” Bob Durnell said.

A memorial service is planned for May 3 at the Rhodes River Ranch in Arlington, a property that includes a horse arena and restaurant that Tom Durnell liked to frequent.

Tom Durnell’s wife, Debbie, was not at the family home when the mudslide struck. She is a nurse’s aide who was at work that particular Saturday morning, Bob Durnell said.

Family members have established a memorial fund, with all proceeds going to Debbie Durnell to help her replace clothing, home furnishings and other everday living items, and to replace lost income until she’s able to return to work.

Tom and Debbie Durnell married in 2010 and moved to their rural home from Snohomish not too long after, Bob Durnell said.

Bob Durnell said the search for survivors resulted in sometimes-frustrating conflicts between local residents of a tight-knit community and government officials charged with leading the rescue efforts.

He said a family friend located Tom Durnell’s body on Saturday, but that the body was not released to the family by the medical examiner’s office until Wednesday. “That’s what each and every family up there” has had to deal with, he said.

Bob Durnell said the family friend also found some personal possessions of Tom Durnell’s, including his wallet and a “pristine photo” of Durnell on a horse.

Tom Durnell “did not look comfortable on that horse,” said Bob Durnell, with a laugh. “He wore cowboy boots, but he was not comfortable with horses.”

Tom Durnell lived his whole childhood in Eugene. He was a performing arts student at South Eugene High, where he graduated in 1966, and studied stagecraft at Lane Community College. He worked as a stage manager and carpenter for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and, later, at a theatre in Minneapolis and for the Intiman Theater in Seattle.

He then worked in construction and in cabinetmaking, before working as a finish carpenter in Snohomish. He retired shortly after his wedding to Debbie.

Bob Durnell, who also worked in construction and carpentry, said he shared that passion with his brother.

“But he was a lot better at finish carpentry than I am,” he said. “He was working at (building) a library at his own home. It was beautiful but not finished.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeff_s_wright . Email jeff.wright@registerguard.com .

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