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Washington state mudslide rescuers share their stories

DARRINGTON, Wash. — The stories rang with fear and frustration, pain and the occasional flicker of joy. But the storytellers Wednesday were not the survivors of the deadly mudslide that slammed into the Stillaguamish Valley.

For the first time since a mountain of mud buried a small rural enclave called Oso and largely cut Darrington off from the rest of the world, a small number of rescuers spoke at length of their long hours on "the pile," of plucking the living from a square mile of mud and debris, of tagging the dead bodies of neighbors.

They described clawing their way through the slurry with gloved hands, discovering the remains of a nursery, the crib in splinters. Crying, "maybe 100, 200 times" a day since Saturday, when a few seconds of geological violence shattered this placid region.

Sixteen bodies have been recovered from the slide and an additional eight remain stuck in the mire, officials said at a Wednesday evening news briefing in Arlington. About 90 people are believed to be missing, and 35 others possibly unaccounted for. That is down from an estimated 176 on Monday night.

At a late-night community meeting in Darrington, however, a spokesman for the Northwest Incident Management Team, Brian McMahan, said one more body had been found in the late afternoon.

What drives the volunteer firefighters in this logging town of about 1,300 people is what Jeff McClelland called "rescue mode," even "a slight possibility of somebody being alive, in an air pocket or wherever. It may sound totally crazy to people, but if we could find one viable person."

McClelland and his wife, Jan, spend most of their time running a goat farm just outside Darrington, and it's birthing season, hopeful and busy. But they also are firefighters and emergency medical technicians. They arrived at the disaster site just minutes after the slide. They were looking for life. And they still are.

"There's a dog that came out Sunday afternoon, a chocolate Lab" rescued from the mud, McClelland told reporters in Darrington. "It was wonderful because it was a life. A life. Something living. If a dog could live, a human could live. That's what drives us. We don't give up hope. We don't get despair."

The McClellands and their firefighting colleague Eric Finzimer said that they were not trained for this kind of duty. But then, who could be? they asked. They rescue drowning people from rivers, hypothermia victims from mountains, screaming people from burning buildings.

"We're prepared for any emergency," McClelland said, "but things that we have not experienced before, we don't know what to do. It would be like being called to go to a nuclear blast.

"How would we be trained to deal with that?" he asked on his first day off after working the disaster site since Saturday morning. "These types of disasters tax us to our limits."

Shortly after arriving at the scene, the McClellands and other first responders donned swift-water gear and tied themselves to trees. The meadow they were searching was awash in mud, water and debris from houses that Jan McClelland said had been "pancaked and pushed around."

They were trying to reach an injured man in his 30s whom they could hear but could not see. He was about 100 feet away. Jeff McClelland kept sinking. When they finally spotted the man, they shouted out, asking how badly he was injured.

"And he said, 'My arm is just barely hanging on,'" Jan McClelland recounted. "We knew it was something where we had to get to him as quickly as we could. So we just kept pushing through."

When they finally stabilized the injured survivor, they looked around for a way to get him out. There was none. So they called for a helicopter.

"We took him out by helo," Jan McClelland said before tears welled up. "And I understand he was upgraded to serious from critical a day ago or whatever and that he's going to be all right. That is the biggest blessing to me."

Randy Fay, one of the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office helicopter crew chiefs, recounted plucking mudslide victims from a mix of "mushy slurry" and debris scattered like massive pickup sticks.

Helicopters darted around trees, he told reporters in Arlington, which is separated from Darrington by the massive slide. They hovered low to the ground, searching for anyone waving or moving.

At one point, Fay said, he spotted two women waving for help atop a house that had been pushed off its foundation and plopped into freezing water. They were coated in mud. One had freed herself from beneath a toppled tree.

When he landed on the roof, they stared at him in shock.

Robin Youngblood, 63, pleaded with Fay to save one of the few belongings she had salvaged from the muck: a Native American portrait, a nod to her heritage that she called "Night Warrior."

After strapping Youngblood and her friend into rescue suits and hoisting them into the helicopter, Fay followed — with the painting.

He dropped off the women and returned to the slide, where he soon spotted more movement: a 4-year-old boy, alone and stranded after mud had enveloped his house.

Two men had been trying to rescue the child, dropping pieces of wood to form a walkway. But one of them had started sinking into the muck.

Fay managed to rescue the foundering rescuer, then grabbed the boy, shivering in a T-shirt and underwear.

Once on the ground, Fay carried the frightened child to an ambulance, where Youngblood was recovering. She didn't know the boy, but she opened her arms.

"I'm a grandma," she said. Fay, 61 and a grandparent too, let the boy go to her. Youngblood rocked him and sang.

Four days later, Youngblood sought out her rescuer after Wednesday's briefing in Arlington. They hugged, and Fay asked about the boy's family.

He has been reunited with his mother, Youngblood said.

But his father and three siblings are missing.

maria.laganga@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

La Ganga reported from Darrington and Hennessy-Fiske from Arlington. Times staff writers Matt Pearce and Paresh Dave contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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