First search and rescue teams describe overwhelming sight

SNOHOMISH — Snohomish County’s search and rescue crews train to save one person and to get that person to safety.

Then they check their gear and go out for another.

In training, they do it over and over.

In real life, it’s usually just one or two patients, such as injured hikers on a mountain ledge.

On March 22, the county’s rescue crews, most of them volunteers, pulled eight people from the debris field of the Oso mudslide. Another helicopter team from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island rescued six. All but one of those rescued during those first few hours survived.

From the air, the square-mile field of debris was an overwhelming sight, said Bill Quistorf, the sheriff’s chief rescue pilot. He and other members of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue team talked to reporters Saturday at their headquarters, Taylor’s Landing, near Snohomish.

As they flew over Oso that morning, the helicopter team consulted a map showing locations for 30 houses.

“All that was below us was dirt, silt and sand and some trees,” Quistorf said.

People and identifiable pieces of houses were only found on the far south end of the slide, along Highway 530, Quistorf said.

One helicopter hovered above the others as the “high bird,” directing the air operations to avoid a collision in the tight space, Quistorf said.

When the helicopter crews spotted someone, they’d send a rescuer down on a hoist, and pull up the survivor.

Meanwhile, local firefighters were working with chain saws and other equipment to free trapped people so they could get pulled to safety.

More helicopters were waiting to whisk people to hospitals. At first, helicopters were landing on the highway, before the roadblocks were up, Quistorf said.

Sometimes the helicopters had to drop 100 feet of line to reach people to hoist to safety, said Beau Beckner, a former deputy still on the reserves and a longtime search and rescue volunteer. In another instance, the helicopter hovered just a foot above a giant mud pinnacle to rescue a 4-year-old boy, Jacob Spillers, whose father and siblings are among the missing and the confirmed dead.

All of the rescues happened within the first two or three hours, the searchers said Saturday. They kept up the rescue effort for days, though. Within hours of the slide, a careful visual search of the field was conducted from the air using a grid system. That was followed by a search using thermal-imaging cameras, looking for human body heat amid the mud, Quistorf said.

There were no signs of life, except for the searchers.

Quistorf said he tried to look for shingles, plastic, clothing, metal — evidence of people.

“I saw none of that in that square mile except for that south edge,” he said.

Few in the U.S. will ever witness a disaster up close, even seasoned rescuers, said Ron Brown, a volunteer doctor and flight medic with the sheriff’s team. For many of the crews, Oso was a first, he said.

Brown, 49, of Getchell, long has provided medical guidance to fire departments in Snohomish County. He knew many of the local firefighters working in the field, he said.

“They’re all like my family,” he said.

By Brown’s estimate, 80 percent of the team’s flight time is spent training. Technical safety is just as important as medical safety, he said. Rescuers carry gear with them in case they have to stay in place overnight or hike back out on their own.

“We train in really difficult terrain,” he said. “We train to go into the mountains right next to the mountain itself.”

The debris field posed huge risks to rescuers, from sharp edges, hazardous materials and heavy machinery, Brown said. They worried the searchers themselves could face crushing injuries, broken bones and twisted ankles. They knew they’d have to fight through the mud to get to anyone hurt.

Crews kept sinking into the deep mud.

“Your boots were trying to come off your feet,” he said.

Local searchers worked tirelessly, some for nearly two weeks straight, Brown said. They were grateful when help arrived from around the country.

Many of the rescuers live in Snohomish County. They know people who know people who know the survivors, rescue technician Ernie Zeller said.

The county also has trained volunteer swiftwater rescue teams, who use hovercraft and other equipment to save people get into trouble in rivers and lakes.

The swiftwater rescue crews have spent much of their time on the east end of the slide, where the debris dammed the North Fork Stillaguamish River and flooded houses. Hovercraft teams were stationed on both sides that first night in case people got trapped in a rising river.

On Day 3, some of the swiftwater crews drove to Darrington.

“We pretty much spent the rest of the week in the water,” said volunteer Greg Palmberg, 57, of Bothell.

The river depth would fluctuate by as much as two feet within the same day, said volunteer John Simbeck, 54, of Silvana.

The crews are used to working around debris in fast-moving water, but the slide debris was on a different scale, they said.

Balls of clay were in the river. Rescuers would clear a path in the water, and when they looked back, it would have disappeared.

They had to carve a new path back out.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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