Grim search continues in Washington mudslide

Grim search continues in Washington mudslide
Members of the Washington National Guard continue to search for victims of last week's mudslide in Oso. (Washington National Guard)

OSO, Wash. — Dr. Ron Brown walked out of the Oso Fire station, hair still damp, face ruddy, safety goggles slung around the neck of his orange jacket, helmet in hand.

The flight medic stood up the road from the massive mudslide Friday and described the grim task of recovering bodies.


Rescuers found another victim in the debris Friday, but the official death toll remained at 17, with 90 missing.


Washington landslide: An article in the March 29 LATExtra section about the reaction of Oso, Wash., to the March 22 landslide referred to a coffee shop, with a sign saying "Oso Strong" and a barista named Katie Anderson, as Your Daily Grind. The coffee shop is called Moe's Espresso. —

Brown said that once bodies have been spotted, reaching them can be difficult.

"You could be 15 feet away from someone and it takes you 50 minutes to get to them," picking across large stretches of water and waist-deep mud, he said.

"It's logs over a lake and they're slipping," he said of searchers, some of whom emerged from the fire station as he spoke, wearing waders and toting shovels.

Officials have been allowing relatives of the missing to visit the scene — a massive square-mile debris field — and help comb through the muck and wreckage alongside firefighters, search dog handlers, National Guard members and other volunteers.

President Obama had approved a request by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee for added federal funding for the recovery, and Inslee announced a planned moment of silence for the victims at 10:37 a.m. Saturday, exactly one week after the mudslide.

The path carved out by the slide south of the Stillaguamish River was still treacherous, Brown said, with water pooling around downed trees and the churned remnants of homes. Workers were pumping water from the site as searchers occasionally formed a chain, joining arms to comb the site, then probing down through layers of debris that included a twisted ATV, Xbox packaging and more wheels, child-sized.

When search dogs smell a body, searchers mark the location's GPS coordinates, and a team returns to excavate.

Workers were excavating with heavy equipment Friday, gingerly probing "the pile," sometimes using shovels or their hands, mindful that bodies may be entombed.

Chaplains and therapy dogs were available to assist families, along with firefighters and other first responders, Brown said. "A lot of times while they're digging, they're just listening to their stories."

By now, he said, "They've sort of formed a bond."

When a body is recovered, everyone at the site follows a somber ritual.


All work stops for a moment of silence, as there was Thursday after relatives found a body. Firefighters stand with the family. Everyone removes their hats.

"We're respectful as we can be," Brown said.

Bodies are loaded into ambulances or, if they have been recovered in remote areas of the mudslide, they are flown by helicopter to a landing zone, where the ritual is repeated.

He said the site of the mudslide would likely become "hallowed ground," a landmark of loss.

"We probably won't find everybody," he said.

In nearby Arlington, relatives of the missing have shown up at Your Daily Grind coffee stand, where a sign says "Oso Strong" and barista Katie Anderson listens to their stories.

"We've been asking locals who's been found," said Anderson, 20. "You can tell the customers who've been up there because their eyes are all red."

There was some encouraging news Friday: A 22-week-old boy rescued from the slide was breathing on his own in intensive care, and his mother was in satisfactory condition. Two men were in satisfactory condition and an 81-year-old man was improving in intensive care.

The coffee stand donated its profits from one day this week, $3,000, to survivors and had a donation jar out Friday. Anderson said most of those she has talked to want the search to continue.

"Some people might be there forever, but they're trying," she said.

Nancy Vos, 62, who was loading a truck of donated food Friday at Oso Chapel near the slide, said she understands why officials have not released a definitive list of the dead. So many people here are just a few degrees removed from the missing. Her daughter knows one of the men; he used to deliver her hay.

"They're being extremely respectful," Vos said. "I appreciate their caution."

Bernard McVay, 52, a welder who has been repairing searchers' heavy equipment, said it was important to allow victims' families to join the search.

"Let's give some closure to people," he said as he stood outside the fire station.

Across the street, the volunteers cleared for duty included a weathered boat builder with a thick white beard, orange waders, camouflage backpack and pants secured at the ankles with duct tape. He's been out on the pile the last few days, working beside families, and marveled at how they keep their emotions in check even as they find photographs and other mementos.

"They're doing remarkably well, at least on the surface," said the man, who has lived in the area for 15 years and asked not to be identified, saying he was just one of many.

Perhaps they will find a survivor, he said.

"The odds are fairly slim, but one can always hope. There may be some air somewhere."

He paused, staring off into the piney mountains draped in fog, resigned.

"I suppose some people will never be found," he said.

Then he set off again on his search.