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NEWS | April 2, 2014

Washington National Guard keeps up the search for mudslide victims

By Spc. Matthew Sissel Washington National Guard

OSO, Wash. - "I found something," a young man said while probing the mud with his shovel.

Several members from the Washington Air National Guard search and extraction team look up at the civilian, a young man in his late 20s or early 30s whose father is missing.

The Airmen, thigh deep in the mud, attempt to make their way over to his find. But the mud acts like a suction, making each step slow and deliberate. And perhaps ‘mud' is not even the appropriate term. It's more like sludge.

On March 22, a mudslide smashed 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. The debris is everything that makes up a town: houses, cars, televisions, computers, household chemicals, propane tanks, sewage, wires, trees, books, backpacks, cribs, and . . . people.

The Guard members finally make their way to his 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 think, 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 one square mile patch 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 141 Civil Engineer Squadron, said that 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% 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-governmental organizations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 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 National Guard members with search and extraction training and 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, 36, has 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 with tears in his eyes.

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."

Washington Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Tabarus James, a resident of Lakewood, Wash., and member of the 141 Civil Engineer Squadron, said he is humbled to be working alongside local residents such as 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.

He was honored to be helping with the search effort, and his search and extraction team was instrumental in recovering missing persons from the debris.

"Since we started helping with the search, there wasn't a day when a local volunteer didn't thank me and shake my hand."