After more than a decade of deployments and long stretches at sea, Navy Chief Petty Officer Billy Spillers had finally managed to land a shore-based job that would keep him close to his wife and four children.
"He adored his children. He was a real family man. It killed him with his job, having to leave them all the time on deployments. He was proud to be in the Navy but he missed being around," said Briana Elias of the chief petty officer.
Mrs. Elias was his former high school girlfriend who graduated with him from Chartiers-Houston Junior/Senior High in 2001 and has remained friends with him since.
"He was really excited that he was on shore duty for the next four years. And then this happens."
Chief Petty Officer Spillers, 30, who was based at the naval station in Everett, Wash., and three of his children remained missing Thursday, four days after a landslide devastated his neighborhood near the rural community of Oso, about 64 miles north of Seattle.
His wife, Jonielle, was not home at the time and the couple's 4-year-old son, Jacob, was rescued hours after the Saturday morning slide, according to social media posts and The Seattle Times.
The death toll after the giant section hillside broke loose and buried dozens of homes stood at 25 on Thursday.
Sixteen of the bodies had been recovered and at least nine more have been found. Ninety people are unaccounted for, authorities in Snohomish County said Thursday afternoon.
On Thursday evening, authorities said that there was no update on the missing family members.
Mrs. Elias is among four high school classmates organizing a vigil at 8 tonight on the Chartiers-Houston's football field, where Chief Petty Officer Spillers was a standout defensive end, earning all-conference honors. She got an email from him less than two weeks ago and he mentioned the possibility of a June visit to Washington County, where he grew up.
"We transitioned into great friends after high school," she said Thursday. "I've been trying to stay off the Internet because it's just tearing me up inside. ... We want to try and have faith that he's still out there."
The vigil also will raise money for the Spillers family. A page on an online fundraising site had already received $21,300 in donations as of Thursday, and the money from yellow ribbons sold at tonight's vigil will add to the total.
Crystal Martincic, an accounts manager at the school district who is helping organize the vigil, said she hadn't spoken to Chief Petty Officer Spillers since high school but remembers him as "the sweetest guy anybody would ever run into."
"He always lifted your spirits," Ms. Martincic said. "It's extremely tough. We have hope every day. We do not lose hope. ... He was just always the kind of guy that, if you were sad, would say 'Everything's going to be OK."
The field is behind the school, 2050 W. Pike St., in Chartiers.
Robert Zullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909. Twitter: @rczullo. First Published March 27, 2014 5:42 PM