Detective describes frantic first moments after mudslide

DARRINGTON — Terry Haldeman was in his gym shorts when the neighbors called.

A flood had carried a house onto Highway 530.

Haldeman’s youngest son had been up sick the night before.

For the first time in months, he’d missed his Saturday morning CrossFit workout.

That was March 22.

If he’d gone, he would have been driving back along Highway 530 when the hill slid.

Haldeman, 44, is a Snohomish County sheriff’s detective with “SNOCAT,” the auto-theft task force. He moved to Arlington in 2003 and Darrington two years later.

In those first hours after the slide March 22, Haldeman played a key role in trying to bring order to the chaos. He set up the first command post on the east side of the slide, using his pickup truck, police radio and supplies from his garage. He then spent nearly two weeks helping coordinate search efforts at incident command in Arlington. Then he took vacation. He spent his two weeks off driving an excavator looking for people and property in the debris field.

The morning of the slide, Haldeman had planned a family weekend, getting groceries, paying bills.

Haldeman was told a house was on the highway. He and his neighbors figured it was a vacant house from down the highway, and that floodwater had put it there.

“We just figured we’d kick it out of the road with a tractor,” he said.

He called the Washington State Patrol dispatch center. He was told that firefighters couldn’t get past C-Post Road. That didn’t make sense.

The vacant house he was thinking of was nowhere near C-Post.

He pulled on his Carhartt jeans, Romeo work boots, SNOCAT sweatshirt and a police vest, the one he wears on raids. It was what he had on hand.

He drove west toward the slide.

There were mountains of mud. The highway was flooding. Trees were down.

The log piles “were taller than my truck, and they were taking up the whole road,” Haldeman said.

Emergency vehicles were already at the scene. People were arguing. Some handheld emergency radios weren’t working right, and the channels were full of voices.

The rescuers knew people might be alive. They knew others were dead.

One woman was stuck up to her neck in the mud. She was pulled out and survived.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Haldeman said. “It was like quicksand, like a slurry. It was and is.”

Haldeman had a marker and some cardboard.

On one piece, he wrote “I.C.” for “Incident Command.” On another: “Staging.”

The signs were duct-taped to his truck. The police radio in Haldeman’s truck was working better than the handhelds. He started calling for more resources.

Haldeman has known Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin for years. He handed Rankin his remote control garage opener. Haldeman had a table, chairs, a tent and notepads in his garage.

He told the mayor: “Bring it all.”

They used those items to start a command post — the start to what has since grown into a massive disaster response operation.

He assigned a firefighter to communications. Her radio could access channels for firefighters that his radio couldn’t.

Haldeman handed the firefighter a notebook and pen. He asked her to start writing everything down.

He knew it would be important to keep records of what they did, the decisions they made. That’s how he was trained.

As the flooding spread, they had to move to higher ground, near Little French Creek Road.

Haldeman worked until 11:30 that night.

On that Sunday and Monday, Day 2 and 3, he helped out in Darrington. That Tuesday, Day 4, Haldeman was scheduled to head back to his job at the sheriff’s office in Everett.

On the way, he stopped by the incident command post in Arlington. He asked if there was anything he could do.

Sure enough, they needed another deputy to keep track of assets and to help coordinate with the sheriff’s helicopter team. Haldeman was a crew chief with the squad from 2007 to 2013. He spoke the language.

He worked in the Arlington command post most of the next two weeks.

One of his friends who has a construction business also had been working an excavator in the debris field. The friend needed a break.

Haldeman knew he could help. He grew up on a farm in Idaho. He can operate heavy equipment.

People in Oso and Darrington needed the work to get done. He needed to be a part of that.

He asked his sheriff’s office bosses if he could take vacation. He spent it working in an excavator.

The team would fire up the machines at 7 a.m. and work until 5 p.m. Then Haldeman would go pick up his boys.

He worked one area for three straight days, clearing 100 yards. It was slow, meticulous work in a giant machine.

“We’re not just moving dirt,” he said. “We’re looking for victims.”

While he worked, he couldn’t help but think about the houses destroyed around him. He knew he was in the middle of someone’s belongings.

He found pots and pans, a safe, a broken gun. Others found military medals, and an inscribed lighter from D-Day.

The searchers saved everything they could.

For Haldeman, an important find was an Everett police jacket or vest. He saw the fabric, and it didn’t look like anything else he’d been seeing out there.

The item belonged to victim Michael W. Pearson, a retired Everett officer who had lived on Steelhead Drive.

A week after the mudslide, Haldeman was going through his garage. He spotted the piece of cardboard marked “I.C.”

He found notes he’d taken on cardboard, scribbles he’d forgotten about.

“Everything had moved on so quick,” he said.

While he was working, Haldeman’s kids still had to get to school in Arlington, on the other side of the blocked highway.

The first week, he and the boys stayed with friends in Arlington so the kids could get to school. Last week, his wife drove the 80-mile detour three times in four days for the kids’ sports events. Friends also have helped them get the boys back and forth.

“Everything that we do has changed,” Haldeman said.

On April 10, as Haldeman left the slide zone for the night, he traded muddy rubber boots for his Romeos. He stopped by his mailbox.

It was where he’d parked his truck to set up that first command post after the slide, before the area flooded. His mailbox is still there.

Another pickup truck pulled up and stopped.

It was Haldeman’s neighbors and friends. He hadn’t seen them since the slide.

He climbed up on their truck and leaned through the driver’s window to hug them. Those in the back reached over the seat to wrap him in their arms.

It was a moment of warmth amid weeks of sadness.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

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