On the sixth day after the catastrophic Snohomish County mudslide, the most frenetic activity at the site Friday was road-building.
Around the edge of the mudslide, chain saws felled trees in the way and trucks dumped beds of gravel in the sodden earth, constructing an access road that will link the east and west sides of the mudslide to bring in supplies and equipment.
Encircled by the noise and activity of that construction, atop the wide expanse of gray-brown earth created by the mudflow, small teams of workers carried on the search for human remains.
From a hillside nearby, the rescue workers seemed dwarfed by the enormity of nature around them. Each dug alone with a shovel or a pick-axe. Backhoes and excavators worked around them.
Yet Steve Mason, battalion commander with Snohomish District 1 Fire Department and in charge of operations on the west side of the disaster site, was clearly pleased with the infrastructure progress that he hopes will speed up the rescue effort.
A private contractor for a couple of days has been building the access road, connecting the Arlington west side and the Darrington east side of the slide, going around the blockage from the tons of debris that poured over highway 530.
Mason said the road will allow him to get supplies from one side to the other. Without it, the only way to cross is to fly or hike, which takes time. Maybe a quarter mile remains to be finished. He expects the road to be completed by Saturday.
“Twenty-four hours ago, this was a stand of trees,” Mason said at one end of the access road. “This will make a huge difference for us.”
Friday, large trucks arrived from the east every few minutes, dumping loads of heavy duty gravel on the edge of the disaster zone that was then brought right in to the site and laid down on the mud.
The construction crew had installed a culvert where the new road had to cross a stream.
A day earlier, Mason had also requested a parking lot to make some room. By Friday, 15 Fire Dept vehicles and lots of other civilian trucks were parked there. A set of floodlights at one end had been used to construct the lot during the night.
“I ask for something and next morning I come to work and I have my parking lot,” Mason said.
Friday morning, an Arlington school district bus and a community transit van arrived at his parking lot and disgorged a new crew of diggers.
Civilians, they wore a mix of gear, chiefly yellow rain wear and hard hats. There were 19 of them, including two young women.
After getting on their protective gear, they shouldered their shovels and marched in single file, very quietly, past the tents that provided food and rest and the line of portable toilets toward the debris field and their somber work in the recovery site.
Just before Highway 530 disappears into a sea of mud, a single untouched house stands on the south end of the road, smoke curling from a chimney Friday morning and rescue service vehicles parked in the yard.
Overhead, National Guard Blackhawk helicopters fly in and out, used to ferry in supplies and for “victim extraction,” Mason said.
At the western edge of the recovery site, work teams have uncovered some 50 yards or so of the highway.
“That’s six days worth of work,” said Mason.
To the side of this stretch of road is an area where teams coming out can get food and drink under open-sided tent canopies. They first must be hosed down to remove potentially hazardous material from their boots and legs.
Two people there, whose clothing identified them as chaplains, stood and chatted with volunteers.
At their feet, a dog with big eyes looked up at the humans gathered around — not a sniffer dog, but a dog brought in to help comfort people in traumatic situations. It looked perhaps like a lab retriever/beagle mix.
Just beyond this rest and comfort area was a small pile of discarded stuff salvaged from houses inundated by the mudslide.
What looked like the remains of an ATV lay wheels up, twisted almost unrecognizably. A smaller vehicle beside it with little wheels must have belonged to a child. A photographer spotted some Xbox packaging.
Mason said his teams are recovering photos and memorabilia for the families, as well as remains.
Friday, a small band of media, hiked through squishy mud up a hill on the south side of the recovery site, skirting a field with signs of the rural life that was normal here just a week ago: a tiny abandoned RV falling into a hedge, an old truck overgrown with briars.
But something new snaked along the fence: a fiber optic cable laid by Frontier some days ago to provide communications for the search and rescue teams.
This vantage point overlooked the basin of mud and debris that was the Steelhead Drive neighborhood.
Below, back-hoes and track-hoes were working to build the access road. Behind that, was a stand of white birch trees. Beyond that, a sea of mud.
A small pristine white tent stood out in the foreground of the landscape: a rehab tent, Mason said, where workers can go to rest.
Some way from that tent, one large group, about 25 people, worked atop a pile of debris, a mix of mud and broken homes. A smaller group, about 15 people, stood in another area, standing in what looked like pure mud, sifting and prodding.
“A lot has happened in the last 24 hours,” Mason said, excited by overnight progress in constructing the access road and the parking lot.
He said the search is changing in nature. “It started with hasty searching,” he said. Now, “we want to be more methodical.”
The search teams have taken apart houses found in the debris. Uncovering a dwelling, Mason said, “we have to demolish the house” slowly and carefully to get to the inside and search for victims.
He described the landscape as seeming like “a pile of dirt, put in a blender and dropped on the ground.” The material they are sifting through is “trees infused with mud, and the homeowner’s stuff.”
“It’s all infused together,” he said.
The search teams bring in the back hoes and excavators to pick up one piece at a time, examine it, then pick up another bite. He called it “forensic digging.”
Every so often, the teams of searchers do a “field walk,” he said. They link arms and walk across, looking out for anything unusual.
When they have searched one pile, then they expand the search out from there. They use chain saws to cut through logs that block the way.
If they see something, they stop so the sniffer dogs can come in. If the dogs detect anything, “we hand dig it out.”
“We’re working our way through the layers,” Mason said. Sometimes, “individuals are waist deep in the mud.”
Mason said about 300 people are working his west branch of the site in two shifts.
They are professional rescue teams and hazmat technicians from all over the country. Uniformed crews included people from the U.S. Air Force; FEMA Urban Search & Rescue, San Diego; National US&R Response Team; Texas A&M and the Center for Robotic-Assisted Search & Rescue.
Mason said this cohort of experts is supported by “a huge contingent of residents of the area, at least 100.”