Oso chief recounts first response at mudslide site

OSO — The first calls over the radio sounded like flooding: There was a lot of water and a barn on the roadway.

Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper headed east on Highway 530, expecting to set up cones and stop traffic.

“As I crested the hill, I could see this was beyond a flooding incident,” Harper said.

For the first time, Harper talked to reporters Friday in front of the rural Oso fire station on Highway 530. He described his department’s response on the morning of March 22.

By day, the 15 volunteer Oso firefighters work in varied occupations: sheet metal worker, a manager for a nearby ranch, an electric company foreman. They share barbecues and birthday parties.

As the fire chief, Harper helped lead the initial group of rescuers into the massive mudslide.

Though he was on the front lines, and the slide happened in his own community, it took days to comprehend the magnitude of what had taken place, Harper said.

By Friday, Snohomish County officials listed 30 people killed in the slide, with 29 of them identified. All but one of those names have been released.

Another 13 people from the area are listed as missing.

The dead include Sanoah Violet Huestis, 4, and her grandmother, Christina Jefferds, 45. They are the granddaughter and wife of Oso volunteer firefighter Seth Jefferds.

“I can’t tell you how tough it’s been and how tough it’s going to be,” said Seth Jefferds, as fellow Oso firefighters stood by in support.

His wife also was a volunteer firefighter in Oso.

Immediately after the slide, Harper and his colleagues heard screams. They shut off their trucks to better track where the cries were coming from.

Over the emergency radio, Darrington firefighters also reported hearing screams from the east side of the slide. The firefighters on opposite ends thought they might be hearing the same people.

The descriptions didn’t match, though.

Then, Harper said, it dawned on them: “We’re not hearing the same thing.”

What they first assumed was a distance of perhaps 100 yards turned out to be more than a mile.

Harper remembered entering a great field of mud, “where you can’t see 10 feet in front of you.”

Soon, Oso crews helped rescue 5-month-old Duke Suddarth.

“At that point, the baby was not breathing,” Harper said.

A rescue helicopter from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office arrived to save the baby’s mother, 25-year-old Amanda Skorjanc.

Without the helicopters, Harper said, they would have been unable to rescue some of the people who were stranded in the debris.

For the first few days, people held out hope that survivors were trapped in air pockets in the debris. All of those whose bodies have been recovered died from blunt-force trauma.

Helicopter crews later said it was clear from the air within the first few minutes that survivors likely would be found only on the edges of the 10 million cubic yards of sand, silt and mud that crashed onto the area.

Regardless, firefighters and others treated the scene as a rescue operation, day after day.

“I think we did everything we could have possibly done in those first couple of days,” Harper said.

The baby who was rescued in Oso was discharged Tuesday from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where his mother remained in satisfactory condition.

On Friday, the Oso firefighters talked about the need to account for every person who has gone missing. Eventually, they’ll need to reopen Highway 530. They aren’t ready to talk about a memorial for the friends and relatives they’ve lost.

For now, they’ll keep on doing what they do.

“We do this for the community,” said Oso Assistant Fire Chief Toby Hyde. “This is all about the valley.”

Friday also marked one week since a makeshift service road was established between Oso and Darrington for rescue crews and heavy equipment. The road largely was built with volunteer labor, including loggers from Darrington. Crews say they’ve developed a buddy system for safety on the narrow road, partnering rescuers’ rigs with dump trucks, using radio communications to avoid collisions. People in Darrington continue to take a 80-plus mile detour through Skagit County to get to Arlington.

Bellevue Fire Lt. Richard Burke, who’s been working the scene and speaking during media briefings, snapped a picture of Oso and Darrington firefighters meeting on the road when it opened, their rigs and the mountains and blue sky behind them.

Burke shared the picture a few days later. The road has become a symbol of reconnecting two strong communities, Burke wrote.

“Tragedy and loss can pull communities apart or it can build a bond stronger than the forces of nature. I had the privilege to witness the latter,” he wrote.

Hyde, the assistant Oso chief, praised the loggers who volunteered to work on the road.

“They just get it done,” he said. “There wasn’t a question about whether they would get paid for it.”

The search of the debris field continues.

Another 80-member FEMA search team arrived Friday. Twenty FEMA search dog teams arrived the day before, coming from Montana, California and Canada. The dogs are specially trained to find human remains. They work in 90-minute shifts in the slippery, challenging terrain.

The dogs can pick up scents that are two or three feet deep in the mud. The wet and cold makes them vulnerable to hypothermia, and veterinarians are on scene keeping watch.

The number of searchers on scene reached about 450 Friday. Roughly 30 excavators also were working in the debris field, according to the county.

Officials also are setting up a designated site for families to retrieve personal property that’s been collected from the site and decontaminated. That location is not being made public to protect victims’ privacy. Items recovered so far have included photos, computers and firearms.

American Red Cross teams on Friday met with victims’ families to provide support, according to a news release.

Along with counseling and other services, the Red Cross is helping families pay for transportation and lodging to bring relatives here for funerals.

Emergency shelters remain open in Arlington and Darrington. The Arlington shelter has been moved to Smokey Point Community Church, 17721 Smokey Point Blvd.

As of Friday afternoon, the Red Cross counted 140 overnight stays in shelters from the slide. The Red Cross also had served 18,637 meals and snacks, and provided 1,248 health consultations and 3,425 mental-health consultations.

People put on yellow ribbons and held daffodils at a prayer service for Oso in Arlington Friday evening. Organizers said the ribbons signal support for the community torn apart by the mudslide.

Packages of tissue were placed around the Haller Middle School gymnasium.

Gov. Jay Inslee and his wife attended the event after visiting survivors earlier.

“We hope all of us can help this community,” Inslee said outside the service. “This is just one of those evenings where we wrap our arms around our neighbors.”

Inside the gym, people joined in prayer and listened to religious hymns.

Steve Schertzinger, the chaplain for police and firefighters in Marysville, helped organize the event.

He has been tasked with delivering the hard news to loved ones of those who died in the slide. On Saturday, he is scheduled to preside over a memorial for one of the victims.

Friday’s prayer service was for the community, he said.

The Arlington Ministerial Association organized some 30 Christian churches for the prayer service.

“This has been a great time to see the community really rally together,” Calvary Arlington Pastor Jim Jacobson said.

He hopes people will turn to faith in this difficult time.

“When there’s death, people want consolation,” Jacobson said. “Our faith in Christ offers the only hope for life after death.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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