In Darrington, firefighter found a community of unshakable will

DARRINGTON — Cheer for. Not against.

Something about that message, written on the wall of the Darrington High School gym, stuck with Gregg Sieloff.

Sieloff, 57, is the assistant chief of operations for the Lynnwood Fire Department. On April 7, he marked his 34th year as a firefighter.

Sieloff was called to the Oso mudslide the first day, March 22.

That night in Arlington, incident commanders made a plan for the next morning: Sunday, March 23. Day 2. People on the east side of the slide, in Darrington, needed resources.

Sieloff was sent to Darrington to work as the deputy incident commander. When he returned six days later, he’d seen a community pull together. Like others who experienced the destruction and the confusion of those first few days, he’s trying to make sense of what happened.

What he saw, and who he met, changed who he was and what he believed.

At first, Darrington was like an island, he said. The phone lines, cable and power were out.

The emergency crews who responded on Day 1 were from Skagit County, the only option with Highway 530 blocked between Darrington and Arlington.

“We didn’t know what we had,” Sieloff said. “We didn’t know what the access was.”

People from Darrington were going into the debris field and trying to find survivors among their family, friends and neighbors. Officials weren’t in the loop. Locals knew the logging and service roads that weren’t blocked by patrol cars.

Sieloff and others arrived, and they were already behind, he said. The North Fork Stillaguamish River was blocked by debris, and the backup flooding was thwarting search efforts.

Sieloff met with Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin that Sunday. They were joined by a couple of others at first, including Mukilteo assistant fire chief Brian McMahan and folks from the county Department of Emergency Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

That Sunday night was the first public meeting at the Darrington community center, in the same gym used for high school sports. The room was packed. People were mourning. The only available route out of town, Highway 20, was more than 80 miles to Arlington.

It was time to get organized.

Sieloff was sent as part of a regional Incident Management Team. Traditionally, the team handles the administrative side of things, not operations.

Sieloff saw that sign on the wall: “Cheer For! Not Against!”

“It just stuck with me in the back of my head, that we needed to gather these people and get them to trust us,” he said.

Many in the crowd had “mud up to their knees.” It took Sieloff a few moments to realize why they were muddy — they’d been digging in the debris.

That original Day 2 plan they’d made the night before in Arlington wouldn’t work. Not for this place, this time. Conditions were too uncertain.

On Monday, Day 3, a man dropped by City Hall. He showed pictures from the debris field where firefighters appeared to be standing around, holding equipment but not doing much else. The man also had pictures of locals digging. He held up both images. His words were barbed.

“He was clearly agitated with the progress of our work,” Sieloff said.”We heard him out.”

He asked a question: “Where are these people digging?”

Sieloff and others leading the search efforts went to the debris field. Locals were using a logging road to get to the south end of the slide.

One of them was Dayn Brunner, a Tulalip police officer, whose sister Summer Raffo was later found in the debris. The family grew up in Darrington.

Brunner pointed out to the firefighters where houses had stood. All they could see was busted-up siding, Sieloff said. He was providing good information the official searchers needed.

Around that same time, the officials got GPS coordinates for a body that had been found. Someone broadcast the coordinates over the radio. The firefighters didn’t know who called on the radio, and the person didn’t want to identify himself.

“In the beginning, there was no trust,” Sieloff said.

The Darrington end of the slide still was covered in water. The south end was an area of devastation. It was clear to people there that it was unlikely they would find anyone alive.

“It was where the locals wanted to go because they were looking for loved ones,” Sieloff said.

On that first Monday, Sieloff and others talked to the mayor for hours. They needed his help. The debris was threaded with downed trees.

They asked Rankin for a list of people in town with access to heavy machinery. Without that connection, they would have had to use the phone book.

Sieloff started calling the volunteer troops, “for lack of a better term, ‘Rankin’s Army.’ “

“Once we talked and he started providing resources, they just came from everywhere,” Sieloff said. “We needed to allow them access. We needed them, but we wanted to control the environment to make sure it was safe.”

At first, it was a couple of small trackhoes, one belonging to Rankin. By Tuesday morning, they had seven machines of all sizes, “all local, all ready to go. It was phenomenal,” Sieloff said.

They sent out 25 volunteers on Tuesday, in groups of five plus a firefighter. Ninety people signed up. They created rotating shifts. Priority was given to volunteers who had missing loved ones.

The firefighters had to acknowledge that people from Darrington were going to go into the debris no matter what. The firefighters figured they might as well be careful and work together.

One family whose basement was flooded provided their personal all-terrain vehicles to shuttle crews, Sieloff said. Volunteers even ran the volunteer sign-up sheets.

“I just couldn’t be any prouder of a community that pulled together and did all the things that we did in such a short amount of time,” he said.

By late Monday or early Tuesday, searchers had to decide whether to work at night, Sieloff said. Some people didn’t have helmets. Some were in tennis shoes.

The locals volunteered to keep their machines going overnight to clear safe paths into the debris field.

Using volunteers in the field helped the community understand the conditions firefighters were up against, Sieloff said.

“Any lack of success wasn’t based on a lack of effort,” he said.

By Tuesday, Day 4, rain was falling hard. The dirt road they were using for access turned to mud.

A lot of the trucks were two-wheel drive with dual rear wheels. The trucks were fishtailing and couldn’t make it over some of the hills. One hill’s aggressive slope threatened to send people and machines tumbling.

They had to stop working. They met with Rankin again.

They needed a road. The loggers knew how to make roads.

Within an hour, volunteers arrived in dump trucks and road graders. They decided to create a route between the east and west sides of the slide. From the edge of the slide in Oso to the edge of the floodwaters in Darrington was nearly two miles.

It’s being called a service road, but to Sieloff, it was “Determination Road,” he said.

There were problems at first communicating with the command center in Arlington. People didn’t have each other’s phone numbers. Some phone service carriers weren’t working. They learned as they went.

Two women, Sieloff doesn’t know their names, stepped in to manage the volunteers. Phone lists were created and shared.

Margo Powell, who owns a beauty salon in Darrington and serves on the Cascade Valley Hospital board, started keeping track of equipment serial numbers and driver’s license numbers. After a few days, Powell said she needed to return to her business. She was told she would be missed. She was back the next morning.

They needed better maps. Amy Lucas, a map specialist in the county planning department, made it happen, working with the Forest Service and with command teams on both sides of the slide.

“She pulled off miracles,” Sieloff said.

Other leaders in Darrington the first few days included Tom Cooper, the deputy Arlington fire chief who served as the slide east branch director, and Marysville fire battalion chief Scott Goodale, who served as east division supervisor.

After a few days, the Darrington Ranger District provided housing for the firefighters. Before that, Sieloff spent a night at the mayor’s house, another in his car. Like others, he didn’t have personal medications with him. Crews suffered headaches from the dehydration.

They had trouble getting shovels, hard hats, safety vests.

They had to adjust operations. Volunteers cut up the downed trees so machines could get in and move mud.

Someone was assigned to communicate with helicopters overhead.

While Sieloff was in Darrington, only two volunteers got hurt, and neither mishap was the fault of the volunteers, he said. One man was hit in the head by debris kicked up by helicopter rotor wash. Luckily, that man had a helmet, he said.

A second man, in his 80s, was bitten by a dog they rescued, one of three dogs and a cat they found alive.

Volunteers from Darrington provided the searchers with breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Eventually, the firefighters got decontamination sites set up, using brush trucks and hoses. That would have been one of the first things to happen at any other emergency, Sieloff said. The resources took longer to come together in Darrington after the slide.

There were concerns about people eating without washing the contaminated mud from their hands. People were told that if they got any open wounds, they would have to leave.

Those on the ground tried to address the problems with the tools they had, Sieloff said.

“We were operating on the edge of safety, but we were always safety-conscious,” he said.

Eventually, a regional search-and-rescue team brought in doctors and decontamination supplies. Some of the volunteers were asked to keep working, even as state and national resources arrived, Sieloff said.

They never let him down.

It was “a phenomenal, unbelievable effort by the community,” he said. “I can’t express enough gratitude for all they did.”

In Lynnwood, crews face all sorts of emergencies all day, every day. Darrington was different.

“We see things, but you don’t come back the next day and see it again,” Sieloff said. “Every day it was the same thing over and over.”

When Sieloff got back home, he spent time with his wife, daughters and granddaughter.

He recognized the need to return to routine, to the life he had before.

On Monday, March 31, he was back to work in Lynnwood. Someone was complaining about a hole in a pair of pants.

The problem seemed so small. Sieloff has been thinking about what soldiers must go through during months of deployment.

He was in Darrington less than a week.

He knows he probably will never again face the same kind of stress, the same hour-after-hour of intense decision-making. He had to trust his bosses who picked him to go.

Sieloff wants to visit Darrington again. He didn’t get to say goodbye and thank the people who helped in so many ways.

He remembers what the locals said as they fought the mud:

“Logger Up.”

“Make It Happen.”

If he ever faces another tough situation, those words will be there.

He learned that in Darrington.

“We tried to stay as positive as we could, and we wanted them to ‘Cheer for us, not against us,’ just like the sign said in the gym,” he said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

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