On December 30, the ground engulfed 14 houses in Nystulia in Ask, which is the municipal center in Gjerdrum. 23 people were taken by the quick clay landslide that shocked an entire population. 13 of the 23 who were torn out into the mud and broken buildings were rescued. Seven were found dead and the search for the last three is still ongoing. More than 1,500 people were evacuated and around 800 have not yet been allowed to move home.
When the whole country was looking for someone who could give an answer to what had happened, to put into words the shock, the sorrow, the longing, and all the bad feelings associated with the tragedy, a man stood up.
From being mayor of a small commuter village outside Oslo, which almost no one had heard of, everyone’s eyes were now on Anders Østensen.
– Sometimes I do not know if I dream or sleep, says Anders Østensen, when Dagbladet meets him again a month after the tragic event.
The disaster and the consequences for the people in the village are the last thing he thinks of when he goes to bed and the first thing that goes through his head when he wakes up.
– I had just been to the bathroom and was going to go to bed when the phone rang, says Anders Østensen, at night when everyday life was turned upside down.
The display on his phone showed that the number belonged to the police. Østensen thought this was serious. Either it was something private or related to the role that the people of the village have chosen him for.
– Are you the mayor of Gjerdrum, the voice asked at the other end.
Anders Østensen confirmed that it was him.
– There has been a serious incident in the municipality. There has been a landslide in Ask and several apartment blocks have collapsed, the police voice continued.
Østensen was confused for a moment. He connected apartment blocks with the new city center buildings.
– Then it emerged that the landslide had occurred in Nystulia. Then I realized that it was the six-person homes that were affected, says Østensen.
– You have to unlock the town hall, unlock it, receive evacuees and put emergency staff, was the message that followed from the police.
Østensen called municipal director Frits Arne Eriksen who picked up the phone and who in turn called around and woke up elected representatives. It was approaching four in the morning. Outside it was dark and the rain fell like sleet. The mayor equipped himself with a headlamp and went to the town hall.
The power had gone out and there was no water. Outside were several people who Anders Østensen first thought were spectators. They were evacuated. From a landslide area no one yet understood the extent of.
He describes the mood as depressed and apathetic.
– It was clear that they were in shock, says Østensen, who tried to maintain infection control measures. Face masks were distributed to everyone who gathered in the municipal council hall
A good colleague in the municipal council arrives with mud on his clothes and with sad eyes and sadness on his face. She was rescued from the landslide and her husband is sent to hospital. It was this meeting that made Anders Østensen realize that many people will be in pain for a long time to come.
– In the beginning we groped blindly, says Anders Østensen.
The hotels The Qube at Gardermoen and Olavsgaard by Hellerudsletta were given partial status as evacuation sites. They could accommodate adults, the elderly and children who had now suddenly become homeless.
Several buses arrived and began transporting terrified Ask residents to the hotels. Then came the message that City Hall had to be evacuated.
Outside, the center of Ask was filled with emergency vehicles and buses. 26 people were missing or not accounted for. The sound of helicopters and sirens was deafening.
Anders Østensen traveled around the village in the time after the landslide to talk to people, gather impressions and solve the queue of problems. The day before Gjerdrum ungdomsskole was to reopen on 6 January, he visited the teaching staff to update everyone on the situation in the crisis-stricken municipality.
13-year-old Victoria Emilie Næristorp-Sørengen, who is still missing in the avalanche, was to start school and several of the teachers and students were directly affected by the disaster.
– We realized that the nursing home had to be evacuated quite early. Several of the residents were infected with corona, but we had to get places, says Østensen to the teachers who sit together at the upper secondary school.
– In a few hours, Ask and Gjerdrum were transformed into the busiest and probably the most coordinated rescue operation that has taken place in Norway, he continued.
The rescue work had been going on for a week when he spoke to the teachers. Rescue crews had managed to get to the crash site and conducted a search of the destroyed houses in the landslide pit.
– First it was called “those who could not be accounted for”. Eventually, they went on to be missed. The number came down to ten people. Then we began to find the dead. We clung to the hope that the rescuers told us, that there may be life in isolated cavities down in the landslide, Anders said.
Anders Østensen is unable to separate the days after the most intense part of the rescue operation from each other.
– It was hard milestones to get the death messages. Mental blows that settled in the diaphragm. I could have hoped that there was someone who had not been accounted for who was at the cabin. Eventually, the missing were found dead. It became an increasingly harder twist on that screw, he says.
Then he realized that there was no longer any hope of finding people alive. On Tuesday 5 January, the message came that there was no longer a search for survivors. Anders Østensen met the press together with the chief of police in the Eastern police district.
The burden of grief was heavy on the shoulders of the mayor, who with tears in the corner of his eye tried to put into words the feelings that the village and the whole country felt.
One month after the quick clay landslide, he meets Dagbladet again. He says that the time that has passed has been incredibly demanding. He has been tired a lot of the time and has been strongly affected by the seriousness. Anders Østensen has also had a conversation with a crisis psychologist, but says that it is the dedicated and nice people around who have kept him going. In addition, he finds therapy in telling the story to those who want and need to hear it.
The mayor has placed himself on a sofa at the culture house, which on Thursday and Friday was converted into premises for the memorial concert to be broadcast on NRK on Sunday. In his hand he has a slice of bread which he has twisted from the catering to the production. A mouthpiece hangs at an angle from one ear. Something reminiscent of an everyday life is back in Ask
– We land some balls, but they do not lie still for that long. We are characterized by the fact that there are so many temporary schemes. When we now run the kindergarten in a prayer house, we discover that it is not a house that is designed to be a kindergarten, says Østensen.
– It’s a chaotic everyday life.
About 150 people still live in the evacuation hotels, but most have moved on to other homes. There are many unresolved issues. No one knows exactly how the insurance companies will treat those who do not dare to move back to the houses that are still in the red zone. People who actually live in care homes are in hotels or with relatives.
– It hurts to see the everyday life that many miss and that they do not get back for a while, says Østensen, who through the process has received help from Roger Sandum, who was previously Secretary of State for Finance Kristin Halvorsen, to handle all inquiries.
– It is a gloomy atmosphere that still characterizes the village. Losing a loved one in death is the hardest part. In addition, many have lost everything they had, says the mayor.
The wife and the three children aged 23, 19 and 15 have been a great support for Østensen during the lead-heavy time.
What does it look like here in Ask in a year?
– I sincerely hope that the three who are missing have been found. That we are able to clarify what this area should look like and how it should be used. I hope that the road out of the village can be used again. That we have put in place permanent solutions so that most people can feel that everyday life is safe and good again, says mayor Anders Østensen.