National Guard defends emergency response for Oso slide

OSO — Was enough done immediately after the hillside collapsed Saturday to save human life?

Some have begun to raise that difficult question, including a state lawmaker from Monroe.

But that’s a “terrible mistake,” the head of the Washington National Guard said Thursday.

Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, commander of the Washington National Guard, flew over the mudslide Sunday and met with John Pennington, head of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

Daugherty praised the efforts of Pennington and Arlington Rural Fire Chief Travis Hots. For much of the week the pair have been the public faces of the ongoing emergency operations.

“For people to be sitting back in the comfort of their home or their office second-guessing what these two men were doing is just a terrible mistake,” Daugherty said.

Daugherty said he told Pennington on Sunday that the National Guard is “here for him and whenever he needed us we would be there.” He wasn’t surprised Pennington didn’t ask for them right then.

There already were many responders in the field, he said, and many of the emergency personnel got pulled back Sunday because unstable ground made it unsafe.

“It was a very difficult situation,” he said. “I don’t think anybody could have gone out there safely. They would have become casualties themselves.”

Even before being asked, Daugherty began preparing for a deployment. National Guard members are civilians and it takes time to mobilize them and gather up resources, he said.

“We were not sitting back. We started alerting units and anticipating what would be needed,” he said. “It would have been very difficult for us to get there much quicker than we did.”

Officials say at least 25 have died as a result of the slide and up to 90 people are considered missing.

As the search entered its sixth day, complaints have continued over restrictions on volunteers entering the site.

Incident commanders have repeatedly asked out-of-towners to stop going to Darrington to volunteer their help.

That message and other warnings have rubbed some wrong.

Rep. Elizabeth Scott, R-Monroe, who has been in Darrington every day, said she and others have been frustrated by what she sees as a slow and haphazard response by government agencies.

“It took days to get personnel into the right place even as the citizens were saying ‘come here, come here,’ ” she said Thursday. “Why were they not in the place where citizens were?

“I agree with what Major General (Bret) Daugherty has said that it’s not a time for armchair quarterbacking but for heaven’s sake, listen to the people on the ground. We need to have clearer plans in place when we have large disasters.”

Scott said one problem is the response is getting run through Arlington and there’s not been good communication with those awaiting direction in Darrington.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect response. We can learn from this and going forward we can think about how we have a better plan,” she said.

Snohomish County Councilman Ken Klein, a Republican from Arlington, said Thursday he’s been nothing but impressed.

Some in the Darrington area were frustrated at being kept away. They were desperate to find the stranded and the dead, who included close friends and family.

“It’s understandable that under normal circumstances, authorities would want to keep people out,” Klein said. “The people in Darrington had some ideas of what they wanted to.”

Klein said the problem stemmed from a lack of communication, when the mountain town was essentially cut off from the outside world. He’s glad that emergency officials realized what the locals had to offer.

“I compliment the people on the ground for having an open mind and allowing this to happen,” he said. “It’s so big and under the circumstances, everyone’s doing a great job.”

Pennington on Thursday conceded that organizers have seen some flaws in their approach. Communication has lagged between command posts in Arlington and Darrington, he said. Another higher-level response team was sent to Darrington on Thursday.

Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins on Thursday noted that local volunteers from Darrington were operating excavators and other rigs on-scene. Those involved were trained heavy-equipment operators, he said, working in sync with search-dog teams.

The issue of volunteer labor being turned away isn’t unique to the Oso mudslide, said Eric Andrews, the Gold Bar fire chief who serves as regional state-mobilization coordinator.

Andrews also serves as an assistant fire chief in Clearview. He’s been a firefighter since the 1970s, most of that time spent in rural Snohomish County.

Families often show up at emergency scenes, he said Thursday.

“They’re frustrated,” Andrews said. “They want to help, and we know that, but here we clearly have an unsafe environment. The public wants to go out and help, and a lot of them will tell you, ‘We don’t care about our safety. We don’t care if we get hurt. We just want to go help. It’s my sister, it’s my father.’ ’’

That’s a natural reaction, and one that incident commanders have found ways to honor as the scene has become safer, he said.

Bill Quistorf, chief rescue helicopter pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, told reporters Wednesday that help was at the scene within minutes.

The rescue team happened to be training on Saturday at its home base in Taylor’s Landing, near the crossing of U.S. 2 and Highway 9 in Snohomish.

It would typically take at least an hour for a helicopter team to reach Oso after an emergency call, he said. They were on scene in Oso within 30 minutes, Quistorf said.

He called it a “tremendous stroke of luck” that crews were training that morning.

Even so, it was obvious almost immediately that survivors were only likely to be found on the edges of the slide. One crew member described it as a barren moonscape, Quistorf said.

Seismic activity shows that there were two large slides Saturday with the first hitting at 10:37 a.m. A second, larger mass crashed down around 10:41 a.m. The readings, taken at the University of Washington, show the land moving for more than an hour.

The helicopter crews pushed themselves and their equipment as far as they could go, Sheriff Ty Trenary said this week.

When one of the choppers had a broken part, local agencies got new parts to them right away so the bird could get back up, he said.

“All of the people that we lifted off the slide, they’re directly responsible for saving their lives,” Trenary said.

Scott North contributed to this report.

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

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