OLYMPIA — When a search-and-rescue team aboard a Navy helicopter arrived at the scene of the Oso mudslide that March morning, the crew could not fathom its magnitude.
Tops of trees provided the best points of reference amid the mud, muck, damaged homes and uprooted power lines. As they got closer, they could see people, some barely discernible amid the debris.
“When we flew out I was looking for a landslide, something smaller along the road side,” former Petty Officer 2nd Class David Scott of Oak Harbor said Wednesday. “When we flew over and I looked down and realized what the slide was, that’s what stands out to me, the magnitude.”
He, along with Lt. Cmdr Dave Waner, Lt. Rob Merin, Chief Naval Air Crewman Richard Andraschko and hospital corpsman second class Brent McIntyre had no time to gawk at the devastation.
The crew from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island launched into rescue mode and in the ensuing hours, and with the aid of three firefighters from the naval station and civilian volunteers, delivered six men and one woman from the muck.
On Wednesday in Olympia, Gov. Jay Inslee and Rear Adm. Jeff Ruth presented the team with presidential citations and medals in a ceremony during the annual Navy Day celebration at the Capitol.
Andraschko and McIntyre received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, though McIntyre could not attend Wednesday. It is the second highest non-combat medal awarded by the U.S. Navy, for actions involving risk to one’s own life.
The two men were on the ground for hours using chain saws, shovels and bare hands to free survivors from the muck.
“There was a lot to be done,” Andraschko said. “We located the last two because they were yelling for help.”
Waner, Merin and Scott, who grew up in Stanwood and has since left active duty, received the Bronze Navy and Marine Corps Air Medal. It is given for meritorious achievement in a sustained aerial flight operation.
Waner, the mission commander, recounted that the initial dispatch reported the emergency to be an avalanche of snow. They knew differently when they arrived.
“I am very humbled by the fact that I was even on duty at the time and we were in a place where we could help the people of Oso,” he said.
Three firefighters stationed at NAS Whidbey Island — Michael Wenzel, Ian Walton and Kevin Paggao — took part in Wednesday’s ceremonies. Earlier this year they each received the Navy Fire &Emergency Life Saving Award for saving a woman who had become buried in a debris pile that had been her home.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.