OSO, Wash. - While search and rescue operations continue at the impact area of the March 22nd mudslide on State Route 530, new safety procedures were implemented to protect responders from contracting illness due to exposure to contaminants in the mud. Toxins from household cleaners, septic systems, vehicles and other factors made several responders ill, causing incident command to implement further safety measures.
On March 29, 2014, the Washington Army National Guard's 790th Chemical Company deployed Soldiers to the impact area to set up decontamination points on either side of the debris field, approximately a mile and a half apart. The "decon" points include a station where rescue workers and search dogs are hosed down, hand wash stations and separated areas for before and after exposure to the mud.
"When we first got here, they were only using the fire hoses from the truck and they weren't doing as thorough of a decontamination job as we would," said Pfc. Spencer Cutler, of Port Orchard. "We make sure every single piece of contaminant is off of them before they eat or return to where they sleep."
The decontamination isn't just for people and dogs, however, as they have been able to assist with other items. Propane tanks found in debris and vehicles are also treated prior to being removed from the site.
Cutler says he finds comfort in knowing that he can help the volunteers searching through debris and assisting response teams, many of whom are former residents of the stricken area.
"Many of the volunteers are people who used to live here, and they can try and find their peace of mind and closure from this without getting ill in the process," Cutler said.
Pvt. Ann Marie Gonzalez, of Mountlake Terrace, served in the Guard only two months prior to the mudslide. She was glad when she received the call from her unit to report to the site because she really wanted to help.
"It's really humbling to see everything, to experience it and be able to help out," Gonzalez said.
"Everyone's been very helpful to the community, but also to the soldiers so it's been a positive experience."
Many residents searching through debris are looking for missing loved ones and their belongings. Recovery teams have been able to find personal papers, photos, children's toys and even a horse saddle in the mud field that the 790th was able to decontaminate and will eventually return.
Spc. Daniel Brown, of Anacortes, says he has mixed feelings about being onsite. While decontamination is a primary task they are trained to do, he says this is a very unfortunate event.
"I'm happy to be able to be one of the people out here," Brown said. "I'd feel pretty useless if I wasn't here."
Soldiers with the 790th Chemical Company don't know how long their activation will be for, but realize their contribution to the safety of the rescue and recovery efforts are worth the unknown duration of their mission.
As Pfc. Cutler said, they're prepared to stay as long as it takes.