By Polly Keary, Editor
Even after five days, Monroe Fire Department Battalion Chief Erik Liddiatt still couldn’t stop glancing up in disbelief at the massive landslide he and his crew of rescue technicians were helping to search.
“I can’t put my mind around how much dirt moved, but it moved a mile in three seconds,” said Liddiatt Wednesday, three days after returning home from the massive search and rescue operation. “Every 20 minutes, you’d look up at the hillside and say, ‘How did this occur so fast?’”
Nearly 20 years of preparing for large scale emergencies still left him and most other responders shocked and horrified at the scope of the tragedy that struck Oso in the mid-morning of Saturday, March 22.
Yet, as they worked through the week, Monroe’s nine tech rescue specialists, three hazardous materials workers and several swift water and medical specialists found that, while there were no happy discoveries of trapped survivors, there were many ways to provide help and comfort to those affected by the disaster.
In the early hours of the event, though, no one had any idea of the magnitude of the catastrophe, said Liddiatt, who has 19 years of experience on the Monroe force.
“Monroe was dispatched on the initial call, but it was just an ambulance strike team,” he said. “They thought there was going to be a lot of people to transport.”
Liddiatt accompanied that team, only to find that wounded survivors weren’t in as large numbers as had been initially expected.
Later in the day, Monroe’s technical rescue workers, highly-trained rescuers who are part of a countywide system of specialized equipment and personnel, were deployed to the area, only to be sent home that evening and redeployed in the morning.
The first day, Monroe’s team was stationed about a quarter-mile from the scene and couldn’t see the extent of the slide, said Liddiatt.
But the next day, he got a call from a couple of rescue techs who arrived at the scene.
“They just said, ‘There’s so much devastation. It’s like someone took a square mile and flipped it upside down and stirred it up,’” he said.
Liddiatt joined Monroe’s emergency workers at what came to be called “the pile” on Thursday, March 27, five days after the disaster.
By then, it was clear to most of the workers that the chance of finding survivors was very low.
That wasn’t because of a time factor.
It was because of a space factor.
Although some news photos showed what appeared to be partially intact structures amidst the debris, the reality was that almost nothing survived total destruction in the slide, Liddiatt said.
“We never did find a whole house,” he said. “I think people thought there would be these void spaces and there would be people stuck. But there were no empty spaces. Even if you found a car, it looked like a pop can that someone had twisted, and the spaces were full of mud.”
The few structures that did remain partially intact were at the edges of the slide, he said. The rest were obliterated, and most traces of them were found a half mile or more from their original location.
The main task of the searchers was to locate the remains of those killed in the slide.
That was and continues to be a very difficult task for many reasons.
The debris field, for one thing, is enormous, almost a mile wide and up to 60 feet deep or more. For another thing, it is extremely treacherous.
“It’s almost impossible to dig,” said Liddiatt. “Our first guys up there, when they called to report that night, the first rescue tech said that he used his hands and wire cutters. Because of all the cables caught up in the debris, shovels were useless.”
Even walking through the debris field was difficult. Many rescuers duct taped their pant legs to their boots, to avoid the boots being sucked off in the deep mud.
Once experts had determined where the majority of the houses would be, the searchers began excavating with some success.
First a search dog would go through, searching in a grid pattern. If a dog indicated the presence of human remains, a second dog would be brought in to confirm the find.
Sometimes, too, family members of the missing, who searched each day right alongside the tech rescuers, would find a personal item or a piece of clothing that they recognized.
Then a track hoe would go to the location and dig into the compacted earth to loosen it for hand searching. In order to get there over the deep mud, though, the workers would first have to lay down a temporary plywood “road” for the piece of equipment to drive on, lest it, too, be lost into the quagmire.
When the earth was broken up, the track hoe would back out, the plywood would be removed, and a hand search would begin.
Although there was little the workers could do for the families, other than protect them and keep them safe as they hunted for signs of their loved ones, at least the workers could listen, said Liddiatt.
“One of the most satisfying parts was letting people tell you their stories,” he said. “If you found a wooden bowl, they wanted to talk about the bowl. They wanted to tell the story. You were someone to lean on. That made you want to work until it was dark.”
The family volunteers got comfort from seeing the same faces every day, sharing the grueling and emotionally intense experience.
And when family members did find the bodies of those they’d lost, sometimes it came as a huge relief.
“One gentleman found a loved one after he’d been searching for days,” said Liddiatt. “I hadn’t seen him smile before that. But he was just so happy that they found his loved one. And the next day he was back, helping again.”
While out on the pile, it was just emergency professionals and civilian volunteers. But at the end of the work day, after passing through decontamination due to ruptured septic systems, propane tanks and other hazardous wastes in the slurry, the support of the community was waiting.
There might be dozens of pizzas at the fire station in Oso, or gifts of pallets of supplies from area stores.
“There were hand warmers, fresh gloves every time, stocking caps, granola bars for your pocket, little bottles of Advil,” said Liddiatt, remembering the gifts he was most glad to get.
After five days of searching, Liddiatt and his crew returned home last Sunday.
The contrast between home and where he’d been was hard to process, he said.
“As long as you are working, you feel like you are doing something,” he said. “And then you get home and you see spring in full bloom, and you think back, and all you saw was destruction, and there was no sign of spring.”
Since then, several Monroe tech rescuers, as well as medical personnel to look after any injured searchers, have gone back to continue the search.
Liddiatt estimates Monroe and other Snohomish County rescuers will be on site at least until April 14. By then, federal disaster managers will likely take over and continue, to allow the county to stop expending its limited resources.
As the federal workers come in, some of them veterans of some of America’s most catastrophic disasters, there are those who say the Oso mudslide is a uniquely devastating site.
“I talked to a FEMA guy from St. Louis, and he’d been at the World Trade Center, and at Katrina, all of them, and he said he’d never seen anything like this,” said Liddiatt. “He said it was like a combination of all of them.”