Master Sgt. Thomas Siegel serves in a Washington Air National Guard unit based out of Spokane that specializes in search-and-rescue missions. He has deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt, but has spent the past few days much closer to home: in the muck of the Oso-area mudslide.
Siegel is leading a recovery team making its way through the debris with crowbars, shovels, probes and tools. Whenever they find human remains, they stop, mark the spot and call for assistance.
“It plays out day-to-day, hour-by-hour. There is no real hard count on it. If we locate (remains), the specialists move in, and we move on,” said Siegel, whose civil-engineering squadron is attached to the 141st Air Refueling Squadron.
As of Saturday, there were 106 men and women from the Washington National Guard working on the ground and in the air in the search effort. The military presence will soon be expanding as an additional 50 members of the Snohomish County-based 176th Engineers Company have been called to assist along with search-and-rescue teams from Colorado.
The increase reflects the challenges in the week-old response to the mudslide that includes both a painstaking ground search as well as road-building to reopen an east-west route through the site. These efforts are organized both from the Arlington command hub west of the slide area and a Darrington hub to the east, where volunteers from the community insisted early on that they wanted to join in the response effort.
“What we are doing, it’s just unbelievable. We’ve got to keep doing that,” said Randy Dobbins, operations officer for the Darrington Fire District. “We’re still going to fight for that.”
The Washington National Guard personnel work from the west side of the slide zone. They arrive on scene at 8 a.m. and work until dusk before returning to temporary quarters, where they sleep on cots.
Siegel said his team works off grid coordinates, and members sometimes get down on their knees to redistribute their weight on boggy areas. When human remains are found, the locations are marked with GPS, and the remains are eventually removed with helicopters.
“In a nutshell, it’s a giant pile of goo. You just keep working your way slowly through it and keep going forward,” Siegel said.
Siegel says the teams work closely with civilian volunteers on scene. “The community folks, they keep us moving. They are our motivation.”
From Darrington, those volunteers include 18-year-old Forrest Thompson, a young logger who started working on the rescue effort a week ago. He grew up in Darrington and knows many of the missing. His passion for the grim mission helped convince emergency-response officials that local volunteers should be a part of the response.
Thompson worked for a week, wielding his chain saw for far longer shifts than a cutter’s typical eight-hour day. He finally took his first day off today.
“We pretty much just buck the root wads and trees off the top,” Thompson said. “If we do find somebody underneath a pile of logs, we just buck everything out of the way, and dig it out by hand rather than by machine.”
Meanwhile, other Darrington volunteers continue to work, including logging crews with heavy equipment whose status is changing as they sign on as contractors.
Thompson said the local crews have helped make many of the finds, and he thinks the search effort might continue for weeks.
“They’re going to have to turn it into a memorial, I think,” Thompson said of the mudslide site. “There is going to be stuff down there they will never find.”