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Iraq War veteran and local youth sports coach coach Matt Pater, 32, searches the debris field near Oso. Pater hiked in past roadblocks to try and help. He hoped to help bring closure for any families missing loved ones. He said his experience in Iraq made him a good candidate to search for survivors and the trauma that may bring. He said some of the kids he coached lived in the neighborhood. Photographed on Monday, March 24, 2014 near Oso, Wash. (Joshua Trujillo, seattlepi.com)

In March, a deadly mudslide devastated the town of Oso, located about 55 miles northeast of Seattle along Highway 530 in Washington State. 36 people were killed, and a dozen remain missing. First responders, volunteers, and the news media flooded to the scene to help assess the damage, provide aid to the victims — and let the rest of the world know the horrific extent of the scene. Veteran photojournalist Josh Trujillo, a photographer for the Seattle PI, was one of the first to arrive.

Josh is no stranger to compassionately photographing communities in the wake of monumental tragedy — and has covered everything from the war in Afghanistan to the community of Newtown, Connecticut reeling after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. But, he says, the scene in Oso was unlike anything he’d ever witnessed.

“I’ve been a news photographer for about 15 years,” Trujillo explains, “My job has taken me to a lot of places of damage and destruction. But the overall amount of devastation concentrated in a small geographic area was difficult to digest. It was shocking. As I was walking through the debris field, I was very aware that I was stepping over peoples’ shattered lives. I didn’t want to disturb anything. These were memories. It was a really traumatic scene.”

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Rescue workers remove one of a number of bodies from the debris field of the Oso mudslide along the North Fork of the Stilliguamish River. (Joshua Trujillo, seattlepi.com)

Some moments stood out more than others.

“The most challenging moment to photograph was when rescuers walked past carrying the body of a victim,” Trujillo explains, “I was backed up against deep mud and had nowhere to go as they walked toward me. I tried to be as respectful as I could. They were silent, with heads bowed as they carried the victim. It was like a somber funeral procession, in the midst of this awful, muddy valley.

I made a few pictures as they walked past. I was shaking as it was clearly a poignant, sad moment that I knew conveyed the awful reality of the scene. But I also knew that it was a deeply private moment that I was going to share with millions of people. Later, I spoke to one of the rescuers. Not knowing what to say, I said ‘you are doing God’s work out here.’  He told me that he studied to be a pastor, so I guess I chose the right words.”

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Rescue workers, left, remove a body from the debris field of the Oso mudslide. (Joshua Trujillo, seattlepi.com)

Emotions were high on the scene, says Trujillo — even for professionals who regularly face immense human suffering.

“I can’t recall a situation where I saw so many first responders and members of the media crying,” Trujillo says, “but the thing I want to highlight is the amount of compassion that we all worked with. In the Pacific Northwest, we have a unique group of photojournalists and media members who really work from their hearts.”

Trujillo said that his main focus while shooting the scene — which he did for two weeks, living out of his Volkswagen camper van — was to capture images that were both informative and empathetic.

“It’s our role to visually report these things that happen in our world, but it’s also important to do it with respect.”

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Oso residents hold candles during a vigil at the Darrington Community Center on Saturday, April 5, 2014. The vigil was held on the two week anniversary of the mudslide and was attended by thousands. (Joshua Trujillo, seattlepi.com)

Photographing scenes of devastation is also essential for the relief effort.

“When you’re out there covering these awful situations, the pictures aren’t for you. They’re for the public to demonstrate the scope and scale. And even with these, I don’t think they did it. The distance that the mud traveled was difficult to comprehend,” Trujillo explains, “It’s a very important part of the response…it’s a part of the formula of recovery.”

Trujillo says he became close to the community, and that, even among the wreckage, human kindness and endurance persevered.

“Over the two weeks staying in nearby Darrington, I got to know some of these folks and have nothing but the highest respect for the difficult job they have done there.”

Josh Trujillo is a photojournalist whose work has been published in nearly every major publication in the United States. He is also a military veteran and the staff photographer at the Seattle PI. You can see more of his work in Oso on his website and in this spread. If you’d like to help to the victims of the mudslide in Oso, visit the United Way of Snohomish County’s dedicated donation page