Couple raced to save people, now they keep digging

DARRINGTON — Jeff McClelland is a tall man of 53 who wells up frequently when he describes the race to save lives and the devastation of Saturday’s deadly Oso mudslide.

When he arrives home in the dark physically exhausted and emotionally wrung, the Darrington firefighter and EMT knows he can talk to his wife, Jan, and that she will understand. The McClellands are one of five couples on the all-volunteer fire department.

With fellow firefighter Shaylah Dobbins, the McClellands were teamed up in the hours after the mudslide swallowed a neighborhood west of town.

By the time they heard the screams off C-Post Road, they knew there would be massive casualties.

“It wasn’t like a mudslide,” Jan McClelland said. “It was like a mountain fell.”

They did what they could to save the living and tag the dead.

It took 45 minutes, 600 feet of rope and a few frustrated tears to slowly cross the soup of mud, clay, rock and timber to reach a critically injured man whose arm dangled limp by his side.

While Jan McClelland and Dobbins tended to the man’s medical needs, Jeff McClelland flagged down a rescue helicopter.

When the man asked if his pancaked house was OK, she quickly changed the subject and invited him to come to her goat farm for cheese this summer. The man is recovering at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Each evening, the couple shares stories when they get home.

On Tuesday, they worked on separate teams rummaging through the rubble with other volunteers from town.

Jeff McClelland witnessed a young man find the body of his missing father. A chaplain was called and the victim’s brother summoned. Workers made space for them to grieve.

At the same time, Jan McClelland helped search the remnants of a home where Oso volunteer firefighter Seth Jefferds lost his wife, Christina, and 4-month-old granddaughter, Sanoah Violet Huestis.

Images of Sanoah’s splintered crib weigh heavy on Jan McClelland’s mind.

“It’s the little things that break your heart,” she said.

The search was personal. The McClellands knew Jefferds from training with their neighboring volunteer fire department.

“They are like our brothers over there,” she said.

Jeff McClelland knows the search for bodies is just beginning. He vows to press on.

“We will just keep digging,” he said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

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