OSO, Snohomish County — It wasn’t until about five days after the deadly March 22 mudslide that Fire Chief John Harper truly grasped the scope and magnitude of the disaster.
Even though Harper and his 15-person volunteer crew had been working 15-hour days in the mud and water, searching for survivors, he still hadn’t realized the full measure of the devastation.
It was when he finally walked out onto the top of the debris field that he finally saw “how massive this thing was,” Harper said at a news conference Friday at Oso’s firehouse. Surrounded by donated goods and supplies, he spoke publicly for the first time about his department’s response to the slide.
Harper said dispatchers initially reported the road had flooded and a barn roof was in the road.
“I thought we’d put up some cones and block the highway,” he said.
But he arrived to find what he called “a giant lava field of mud” and hear people crying for help, he said.
Harper told his crew and the civilians present to turn off their car engines so they could pinpoint the cries they heard coming from the rubble of splintered houses, smashed trees and undulating mud, he said.
They eventually rescued a baby and breathed life into his lungs. They also found and rescued the baby’s mother, he said.
Although no other survivors were found after the first day, Harper said the first responders and the volunteers who rushed in to help could not have done more.
The blocked river began to rise and the responders pulled back to higher ground, and a decision was made to evacuate residents for fear of flooding, he said.
“The first couple of days were pretty hectic,” he said. “I think we did all we could with the assets we had.”
His friend and fire department colleague Seth Jefferds, whose wife and granddaughter died in the slide, choked up when talking about his loss and about the support from the community.
Assistant Chief Toby Hyde said the real work is just beginning. He said the department and community will be there for the survivors and loved ones for as long as it takes.