By Scott North and Rikki King Herald Writers
SNOHOMISH — Helicopter crews who played key roles in saving more than a dozen lives at the deadly Oso mudslide met to debrief Wednesday, their first opportunity since the hill fell March 22.
That discussion happened behind closed doors, but there’s one big take away: The helicopters made a difference.
A total of 41 people have been confirmed dead, and two others still missing are believed to have died in the slide.
Search and rescue helicopters based in the county and at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station are credited with helping extract 14 victims from the mud, 13 of whom survived.
Several of the injured were rushed by Airlift Northwest to treatment at the region’s top trauma hospital in Seattle.
The county helicopters are costly, even with crews that are almost entirely volunteers. Snohomish County Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, who oversees search and rescue, said he’s heard grumbling over the years about the costs of rescue missions, particularly for climbers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts who find themselves in trouble in the area’s wild spaces.
What happened at Oso was the result of training and experience, and it showed the value of the community’s investment in developing a cadre of trained helicopter crews, Wikstrom said.
“It’s so tragic that something of this horrific magnitude has to occur for people to recognize that,” Wikstrom said.
The county’s helicopters crews were training the morning of the slide, and they were able to quickly reach the area and spread the word to scramble others.
In several key instances, neighbors from Oso and Darrington waded through the mud and debris to reach victims and guide in helicopter crews. From the ground, they used hand signals to tell the helicopter crews they had located survivors and needed help.
Those people were among a long line of folks who put others first in trying to save lives and get answers for families with missing loved ones, Wikstrom said.
There was friction at first as locals were joined by people from throughout the nation who came to assist in the effort.
“Somehow, out of the kindness of peoples’ hearts and professionalism, they made it work,” Wikstrom said.
“There are so many people,” to thank, he added. “I don’t have the words.”
Snohomish County sheriff’s volunteer flight medic Richard Duncan, 44, also is a captain and paramedic with Fire District 1 in south county.
On March 22, he was on board SnoHawk1 with the sheriff’s chief pilot, Bill Quistorf.
The crews in SnoHawk 10, the larger helicopter, rescued slide survivors using hoist equipment. Later in the day, Duncan was among the crews that hoisted up people who were first on the ground trying to reach victims. One of the places they landed was a pasture near Oso Loop Road.
The rescuers were exhausted, Duncan said.
Several local firefighters and others who were working on the ground were hoisted by county and Navy helicopters so they wouldn’t have to fight their way back through the mud.
Many of the helicopter crews last week got to meet President Barack Obama and shake his hand. Some said their parents watched them meet the president on TV.
In the state, only King and Snohomish counties have helicopters equipped for hoist rescues, and their helicopters get called out all over. The Snohomish team is a regional resource, Quistorf said.
The Snohomish County team volunteers have been aggressively fundraising in recent months to keep financially afloat.
The team previously relied on proceeds from a federal timber tax to pay for gear and supplies, including rescuers’ personal protective equipment. The tax recently expired.
The county council agreed to fund the team for 2014, and there’s been talk of a one-year timber tax extension, Quistorf said.
The team still is working on finding more permanent sources of funding.
For more information, go to helicopter rescue.org.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.
A fundraiser featuring Celtic rock violinist Geoffrey Castle is planned for emergency responders, including the Snohomish County helicopter rescue team, for 7 p.m. May 24 at the Stanwood High School Performing Arts Center, 7400 272nd Street NW. Tickets are $20 and sold at brownpaperticket.com or at the door.