By Polly Keary, Editor
No one was ready for the mudslide that tore through the tiny community of Oso Saturday morning, March 22.
But a team of specialized emergency workers, including several Monroe firefighters, were at least well prepared.
Those firefighters are part of the Snohomish County Technical Rescue, and six of Monroe’s nine specialized emergency workers have been working at the slide site every day since the disaster struck.
Snohomish County Technical Rescue was formed in 2004 because fire chiefs around the county
recognized that some disasters are too big to be handled by any one jurisdiction, and that trying to be prepared for every single contingency was too expensive for any district. So rather than duplicate specialized equipment and skills, the fire departments decided to coordinate.
And member agencies also train their participating emergency responders in rescue tech skills. All responders learn skills including confined space rescue, rope rescue, trench rescue, and rescue from structural collapse.
Some go on to more specialized skills, such as ice rescue, swift water rescue and wilderness search and rescue.
When the emergency call went out about the landslide, six of Monroe’s nine technical rescue personnel joined a team of other technical rescue workers from around the county and headed for Oso, where they assisted with the immediate rescue of survivors.
The following day, they returned to the site, where they spent the next seven days, returning late Sunday night. It has been a harrowing seven days, said Monroe Fire Chief Jamie Silva.
“At six in the morning, they get briefed, and then they go out on the pile,” he said. “They finish at six and get debriefed and eat.”
The Monroe firefighters were all staying at a private home, but days have been long, cold, filthy, dangerous and wet.
At first, the rescuers were trying to find survivors. Among the technology used to seek them were listening devices and cameras that could be lowered into confined spaces.
Search cams are small cameras mounted onto flexible hoses attached to what looks like a power drill, with a viewing screen mounted, facing the searcher. Listening devices look a bit like handheld satellite dishes with microphones at the center, with the operator wearing earphones. They are very sensitive, capable of picking up sounds from as far away as 500 feet, and very expensive, too. Each one can cost $10,000 or more.
The rescuers were standing by with building shores to brace up walls should someone be found in a collapsed home, with cutting torches and pneumatic heavy lift bags to move huge pieces of rubble to get to someone trapped.
But after the first day, there have been no more survivors found. As the hours and days wore on, the responders began to shift the focus of the work to finding the bodies of the victims.
It has been slow, frustrating going. The debris is about 15 feet deep in many places, as much as 70 feet deep in some. It is also a very large field, covering an area a mile wide. It is vast, and covered in thick, viscous mud. Workers and local volunteers have cut plywood to form pathways to allow people to walk without sinking. In places, the mud is deep enough to swallow entire pieces of heavy equipment. There are van-sized clay balls of mud, treacherous footing and compacted mud in places so dense workers have compared it to concrete.
Without seeing it, it is impossible to conceive of the magnitude of the disaster, said Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots in the days after the slide.
Yet Monroe’s six technical workers, including Ron Adams, who joined the command structure of the operation, spent 12 hours each day on what they call “the pile,” where it can take hours to progress a few yards.
Most of the search work for bodies is done with dogs, said Silva. But it’s not as simple as a dog crisscrossing the field until it smells evidence of a buried victim. Scents travel with air, and air can move a long way before it surfaces. When a dog indicates a smell, a second dog is brought over to verify, and then searchers start probing into the debris, sometimes finding the victim a fair distance from where the dog found the evidence.
Monroe’s swift water rescue boat was pressed into service to ferry people to the site via river, as the slide has covered SR 530, the only road with access to both sides of the disaster.
It’s exhausting work, but it’s not the physical hardship that has been the most taxing to the six Monroe searchers, said Silva.
“It’s the emotional stuff,” he said. “You’ve got the families right next to you.”
Those with loved ones among the missing are searching right alongside the professional teams.
“They just want to find of their loved ones so they can be at peace,” said Silva. “They are working right beside those people.”
When a victim is found, searchers describe a certain quiet that comes over the teams. It is always sad, but sometimes it can be a relief too, said Silva. Monroe workers were present when one person found the family members for whom he’d been searching for days. It was an answer, and it gave the family a way to have a funeral.
As wrenching as the scope of the tragedy is, searchers like the Monroe six, who have been joined by members of Monroe’s Hazmat team who came to help with things like propane and septic tanks and other toxic debris, have been given a great deal of support.
“Someone needs to do a story about the soup lady,” said Silva.
The soup lady is in fact a member of a Black Diamond group of women called “The Soup Ladies,” who volunteered to serve workers after Hurricane Katrina and have been assisting at disaster sites ever since. They brought soup from a Black Diamond restaurant until they were able to set up a kitchen in Arlington and serve every day.
“There are tons of stories,” said Silva.“People are bringing stuff. There was a hot dog stand with someone to cook hot dogs.”
Monroe’s team returned home Sunday night.