“I found something,” he said while probing the mud with his shovel.
Several members from the Washington Air National Guard search and extraction team look up at a civilian, a young man in his late 20s or early 30s, whose father is missing.
The Airmen, thigh deep in the mud, attempted to make their way over to their colleague. But the mud acts like a suction, making each step slow and deliberate. And perhaps ‘mud’ is not even the appropriate word. It’s more like thick sludge.
On March 22, a fast-moving mudslide smashed its way through Oso, Wash., a small river town hidden in the Cascade Mountains. Nothing in its path was left standing. As a result, a vast debris field is all that remains. Within the debris is everything that makes up a town: houses, cars, TVs, computers, household chemicals, propane tanks, sewage, wires, trees, books, backpacks, cribs, and … people.
The guardsmen finally reach the site of the latest discovery. They carefully poke and prod with their shovels, speculating as to what might be hidden beneath the surface. It could be a car, they say, and if that’s the case, someone might be in there. They continue to expose it, one shovelful of sludge at a time. An Airman splashes some dirty water on the mystery, attempting to clean it with his gloved hand.
“It’s just a rock,” he said.
The search continues, and the young man looking for his father stands on a tiny patch of dry ground to gain a different perspective. Looking up from his vantage point 500 feet from the edge of the mudslide, as far as the eye can see, is a square mile of wasteland still waiting to be searched.
In spite of the many challenges, Washington Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Michael Cohan, search team member from the 141st Civil Engineer Squadron, said the search and rescue teams are doing well.
“It’s difficult because you are crawling around trying to find things that are hidden in the mud, but there’s good teamwork and morale is high,” Cohan said. “Everyone has been putting in 150 percent and is eager to get their hands in there.”
The teamwork that Cohan refers to, which has been crucial to the search, requires a coordinated effort between civilian volunteers, firefighters, rescue dogs, county workers, non-government organizations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard.
The state mission of the National Guard is to provide assistance to local communities affected by natural and man-made disasters. In response to the Oso disaster, more than 100 Washington guardsmen with search and extraction experience have been activated by the governor, with more planned to follow.
Up to this point, the major search and extraction efforts have been limited to the fringes of the mudslide. Highway 530 is the only route through the area, but now it’s covered by tens of feet of mud and debris for nearly a mile. Because of Oso’s remote mountainous location, the blockage requires a more than two-hour detour to get from one side of the mud to the other.
Presently, trees are being felled to make way for a bypass created with fist-sized gravel. The bypass will allow more efficient access to other areas of the debris field with a high-probability of finding missing persons. Following the disaster, improving access to the mudslide has allowed for an exponential increase in search efforts.
A local resident, who identified himself as John, spent two days helping with the search. His friend’s son went missing and he wanted to help.
“I can’t just sit on my couch and wonder, so I’m here to do what I can do,” he said.
He spent his time in the debris field with his chainsaw removing fallen trees that were hampering the search. John didn’t find his friend’s son or anyone else, but he was able to recover important mementos.
“We found dog tags that belonged to a friend’s dad who is missing, and that’s the stuff that matters a lot to people whose families are gone,” John said. “We gave them to him. That was tough.”
Staff Sgt. Tabarus James, a resident of Lakewood, Wash., and member of the 141st CES, said he is humbled to be working alongside local residents like John.
“You always hear that you can lose everything in a blink of an eye, but you rarely spend time with people who just lost everything,” James said.
James was honored to help with the search effort, and his search and extraction team was instrumental in recovering missing persons from the debris, he said.
“Since we started helping with the search, there wasn’t a day when a local volunteer didn’t thank me and shake my hand.”