Major Incidents

Interagency Coordination in Critical Mudslide Rescue Effort

Issue 9 and Volume 39.

Survivors say it sounded like a freight train and was over in minutes. Many residents were swept away while inside their homes without warning; others were overcome while driving through the area, on their way to or from everyday activities such as shopping.

At 10:37 a.m. on Saturday, March 22, the quiet neighborhood in Oso in Snohomish County, Wash., was buried in mud, water and trees from the 10 million cubic yards of earth that sat above it, each cubic yard weighing more than a ton. In less than four minutes, 49 vacation homes and permanent houses were left in a heap at the bottom. Lives were lost: babies, children, entire families—43 people total.

The mudslide, which locals claim was caused by excessive rain and clear-cutting, hit the homes on this once idyllic hillside at forces of 50–60 miles per hour. Mud and debris slid into the Stillaguamish River and over State Route 530, closing off any access to those who needed help. The water continued to pool at the blockage, causing flooding upstream and piles of quicksand-type mud 30–70 feet deep. The mud spanned more than a mile, with the town of Darrington on the east side, and the community of Oso and the city of Arlington on the west side; all north of Seattle. (See Figure 1, below)

Figure 1: Oso mudslide

Oso mudslide

Dispatching resources to the event fell to SNOPAC911, a Snohomish County-based emergency call center that handles 645,000 calls annually. Calls for an increasing number of resources came from both those physically close to the mudslide as well as from distraught family members checking on loved ones. Others in the area, realizing that something big had happened, called 9-1-1 when they reached the edge of the disaster zone, reporting everything to dispatch as they joined the desperate search for survivors.

Additional dispatchers were called in and additional frequencies were assigned. Although he couldn’t physically see the mudslide, dispatcher Jeff Torgerson, a firefighter and swiftwater rescue team member, said communications between those standing in the mud and those in command remained calm, even though units were popping up on all frequencies. “It’s hard to prepare for these kinds of events,” he said, “but we all pulled together.”

As the search and rescue effort continued, the mudslide—which stretched more than a mile—is seen in the background.

As the search and rescue effort continued, the mudslide—which stretched more than a mile—is seen in the background. Photo Amanda Honsowetz

Rescue Mission
Darrington, Wash., Fire Chief Dennis Fenstermaker was one of the first arriving firefighters on the east end of the mudslide, along with an off-duty Snohomish County Sheriff’s deputy.

“We had reports of people screaming for help from the west side, and we had our own reports, but realized we were talking about an incident that spanned miles, not yards,” Fenstermaker said. His small, 25-person volunteer department wasn’t going to be enough, and he was well aware that the normal mutual aid resources weren’t going to be able to reach them. “I established incident command, asked for all the helicopters I could get, all the apparatus from the next county, strike teams and an incident management team,” he said.

Adjacent Skagit County sent Fenstermaker all the apparatus he asked for—and then some—according to Skagit County Fire District 8 Chief Rusty Feay. The other units responded as they were needed. Arriving on the west side, Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said he watched an off-duty firefighter walk from the edge of the slide. “I know what a man looks like when he’s lost more than his home,” Hots said.

Even though he knew the rescue felt slow, dangerous and impossible, he couldn’t blame those who wanted to look for their families. Local residents came to the scene despite the concerns about flooding, trying to find friends and family members screaming for help. This use of civilians and community emergency response teams in the rescue effort, said Feay, was one of the most positive things. “It was well organized and effective, pairing people with firefighters and other rescuers,” he said.

One of the first rescues made by civilians was a 4-month-old infant, lifted from the arms of a traumatized mom. She was able to hold onto her child despite the trauma she endured, surviving with bilateral fractured ankles, a fractured arm and facial trauma. Her son, Duke, had a skull fracture, from which he’s since recovered.

Rescuers themselves had to be rescued as the mud continued to shift during search efforts, but reports of more people calling for help drove them—even at their own risk, according to Hots, who was told: “We’re putting it all on the line, and we’re going for them.”

Rescue workers move lumber to help stabilize a destroyed structure before searching it.

Rescue workers move lumber to help stabilize a destroyed structure before searching it. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Unifying Command
For Arlington, Wash. Fire Chief Bruce Stedman, who spent 32 years in Los Angeles fighting fires and responding to riots, explosions and earthquakes, this was the worst disaster he’d seen. Standing with Hots on the west side as he led his department, it quickly became apparent that a unified command was necessary. Roles were assigned as the command system, based on the National Incident Management System (NIMS), was expanded.

Working in an incident like this highlighted the need for NIMS. “Basic training helped,” Stedman said. “But the biggest impact was because everyone worked with the same plan; everyone knew NIMS.”  The east and west side couldn’t share ground resources, so a decision was made to split the event into the East Branch and West Branch.

Air Evacuations
SnoHawk 10 is a UH-1 Huey helicopter used in rescues throughout the western Washington region, staffed by the Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team (HRT). The HRT is part of the Northwest Regional Aviation Group and has specialized wilderness medicine and rescue training to perform rescues in hard-to-access areas, according to HRT Medical Director Ron Brown, MD. The program was started with funds from the federal Department of Homeland Security in a collaborative effort with Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue (SAR), Everett Mountain Rescue Team, and flight medics from Snohomish Fire District 26, out of Gold Bar, Wash. Now supported on public donations, they’ve been involved in more than 600 rescues. Commitment to training is the key to their success, with 27 of the 30 members being volunteers. “It’s hard to find the exact combination of the right people,” Brown says, “and even rarer to find those who train as much as we do.”

Just starting a routine training flight at the time of the mudslide, SnoHawk 10 was staffed with two pilots, two EMT rescue technicians and a crew chief. Mission ready, they reached the landslide in 15 minutes. They flew over the ridge to get a good look at the site, and after making a few passes, opened their doors and started identifying survivors and civilians already in the debris field.

Volunteers and firefighters with chainsaws and hand tools hike down a rugged path toward the mudslide.

Volunteers and firefighters with chainsaws and hand tools hike down a rugged path toward the mudslide. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson


Their first rescue was two women floating on a roof. While lifting them individually to safety, civilians on the ground were just starting to reach a small boy stuck in the mud. He was lifted into the helicopter and found to be stable and reunited with his mother, who had been out running errands. His three siblings and father were still missing.

Everyone rescued on that first mission was messy and muddy, but alive.

Flooding remained a concern and both the Stillaguamish Water Rescue Team and the SAR Swiftwater Rescue Team were dispatched, but the terrain was unpredictable.

“You could be walking along on a tree, and after your next step, find yourself up to your chest in mud,” said Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper, who was one of the first to arrive on the west side. Ultimately, Harper said, more than 100 firefighters responded from counties across western Washington.

Evacuating the patients by air seemed the most expeditious route, and the U.S. Navy Search and Rescue Team, also experienced in hard-to-reach rescues, was dispatched to help evacuate patients. They loaded extra backboards and arrived in 25 minutes. Initially unable to match the air frequencies of SnoHawk 10, they looked for a landing zone, but were waved down by a civilian standing on a roof, indicating there were injured people below.

Navy Search and Rescue Technician Brent McIntyre was lowered to the ground and assessed two people trapped inside the home. “The patients were hypothermic. Most didn’t realize what had happened—one didn’t know where he was,” he said. The crew realized it was going to need a lot more tools and rescuers, so the helicopter landed in Darrington on the east side to pick up three firefighters with chainsaws and axes to help gain access to the patients.

After refueling and picking up additional firefighters from Navy Region Northwest (NRNW) Fire and Emergency Services at their home base in Oak Harbor, Wash., they returned to the scene, now having established radio communication with both SnoHawk 10 and Airlift Northwest, the air medical transport service in the Pacific Northwest.

“Once we were set down on the ground, we had no idea we were standing on a roof,” said NRNW firefighter Kevin Paggao. “It looked like one big slush pile.”

After several hours of cutting and lifting from multiple homes, six patients were extracted and taken to the landing zone, where waiting ambulances and helicopters from Airlift Northwest transported them to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the closest Level 1 trauma center. A total of 14 patients were extracted with the help of civilians and neighbors who braved the shifting ground. Both helicopter teams kept the rescues to a BLS mode to shorten rescue times and reach more people. Most patients were stable and handed off to paramedics waiting at the sides of the slide.

“Once the survivors were rescued, it was quiet,” said Snohomish County Assistant Fire Chief Eric Andrews, who had arrived to take over as operations section chief. “Not seeing the area before, it was difficult to size it up, to understand the enormity of it.” The river continued to back up, and there were concerns about another mudslide or flooding. The first command post on the east side was under water within 12 hours.

A forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera-equipped search helicopter looked for more patients at a high altitude while a second FLIR-equipped helicopter hovered closer to the ground to investigate any heat signatures, but by the end of the day, all survivors had been transported. The mudslide was just as brutal to patients as it had been to their homes, and many suffered broken bones, punctured lungs and skull fractures.

A FEMA task force member coordinates search and rescue efforts with local first responders.

A FEMA task force member coordinates search and rescue efforts with local first responders. Photo Amanda Honsowetz


Recovery & FEMA
On Monday, March 24, the third day after the mudslide, President Obama signed a declaration of emergency for the area. Resources started arriving within hours, and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) task forces spread across the country traveled overnight to reach the site.

When FEMA forces arrived, the small command tents were replaced with what amounted to a small city. Trees were removed and gravel was laid for the new rescue vehicles. The freshly cut trees were used to build a walkway across the mud and debris, and eventually railroad ties were brought in to support the excavators and keep the heavy equipment from sinking in the mud.

Air crews remained on scene for the safety of the rescuers. On the west side, the Snohomish County Swiftwater Rescue Team continued operations at the site, and on the east side, the Stillaguamish Water Rescue Team supported volunteers throughout the first week. The movement of the hillside was monitored constantly by geologists and scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey as it continued to rain for the next 10 days.

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) task forces were streaming into the disaster site, bringing equipment, supplies, technology and, most importantly, experience. Each task force is made up of firefighters, logistics, communication, medical providers, rescue technician specialists, search specialists and canine units, and is self-sufficient for 72 hours. The population of rescuers expanded to more than 1,000, but local residents, loggers and heavy equipment operators continued to play a vital role.

FEMA USAR Incident Support Team Leader Tom Miner, who’s been with search and rescue operations for more than 40 years, arrived from Pierce County, just south of Seattle. “We weren’t there to take over, but to support local management authorities,” he said.

Fortunately, Miner knew a lot of the key players, and fitting into the organization was easy. FEMA teams obtained information not based on where the houses were, but where they were likely to have been pushed by the force and volume of the mudslide. At one point a pumping station was installed, trying to dry out the east areas so they could be searched.

Searchers in boats and on foot scour through debris.

Searchers in boats and on foot scour through debris. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson


“We could not have done what we did without loggers, heavy equipment operators, local people, rescuers and dogs,” Miner said. “We wrapped our arms around them, and gave them some focus to their efforts.”

“Unfortunately, it had become a recovery operation, and it was huge task, but a lot of people were working hard,” said Eric Peniata, a task force member based in Riverside, Calif. His task was to coordinate communication with all the agencies and the crews still flying over the site. He also programmed radios for volunteers who were paired with professional rescuers to venture into the mudslide.

John Bentley, on the Maryland Task Force, was also at the site Tuesday morning. He said the crews—sometimes operating on little sleep— were always taken care of, and came together as one organization. “We were always being asked: ‘How can I help, what do you need today?’” he said.

According to Bentley, everyone became part of an extended family. “They weren’t just victims to us,” he said.

The National Guard came to help and played a critical role in navigating the thick mud. The most surprising thing about the site was the size of it, said Michael Tietjen, an infantry sergeant with the National Guard and a Seattle police officer. “We saw pictures, saw video, but being there, seeing it … unbelievable,” he said. More than 100 National Guard members joined in the recovery mission, going through the debris, trying to find anything significant.

A search dog rests after a long day of search activities.

A search dog rests after a long day of search activities. Photo Amanda Honsowetz


Importance of Search Dogs
The numerous search dogs and skilled handlers brought in to assist in recovery efforts had a positive impact. The dogs, resilient and flexible, were lighter on the dangerous tracts that couldn’t always support people. The dogs worked well in the mud, and in the beginning, they spent 3–5 hours on site before being pulled out. The work was physically demanding for both the dogs and the handlers, and the dogs also suffered from dehydration and lacerations. Many of the dogs were trained to find both the alive and the deceased.

“It was quite amazing that so many dogs and handlers worked together as collaboratively and effectively as we did,” said Suzanne Elshult, a SAR handler from Snohomish County. There were at least 60 SAR dogs from half a dozen states and from Canada, according to Elshult. A couple dozen dogs and handlers from FEMA worked alongside the animals that were already deployed.

Media Rush
Even before the federal declaration of emergency for Oso relief, the press was already pouring into the region. With multiple Snohomish County fire departments involved, Hots was unexpectedly thrown into the media fray.

“The first day, there were maybe a dozen cameras and some photographers,” he said. “But by the third day, it was unbelievable.” Hots said he would normally avoid the media, but he took the duty to heart, meeting with the press twice a day.

He said his cross training helped. “I was out in the mud. I had done most of the jobs at one time, as a [helicopter] pilot, a firefighter and a technical rescue team member. I went out there asking questions, getting answers, walked all over that site,” he said. “Then I came back and answered the questions I knew the community would want to know.”

Donations to assist the rescue efforts—both physical and monetary—began pouring in from all over the world. There were donations of rain gear from Patagonia, pet food from Purina, outdoor gear from Cabela’s and gas cards from Safeway. Local businesses did fundraisers, donated equipment and sharpened chainsaws. School children put out donation cans and restaurants donated meals. Millions of dollars were raised by nonprofits for the survivors—so many wanted to help take care of the families, give housing to those who had none, and help bury loved ones.

Search-and-rescue workers with hand tools and a chainsaw work their way through the debris field of the deadly mudslide.

Search-and-rescue workers with hand tools and a chainsaw work their way through the debris field of the deadly mudslide. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren


The Aftermath
Supporting the rescuers’ mental health has taken a significant role since the event, and everyone feels the stress. “There is plenty of grief to go around,” said Brown. He admits that events like this aren’t unique, but the size was completely unexpected.

Hots feels the same. “For several nights, I struggled to fall asleep, and I found myself thinking about all the people who were unaccounted for and were still out there.”

In the week following the slide, Arlington Fire Captain Dave Kraski was responsible for taking a busload of family members to the debris field. Surrounded by the grief of family members, he felt the despair. “Every day before that was physically exhausting, but that day I was overwhelmed emotionally,” he said. “No matter how much we said to the loved ones, they weren’t prepared for that kind of devastation.”

The community support was helpful for everyone involved, said Tietjen. “When we picked up clean uniforms, we’d find notes from the local school children in our pockets.”

Lessons Learned
Hundreds of volunteers came to the site every day on both the east and west side. Preference was given to family members, but they were never sent into the mud by themselves. Firefighters, search and rescue technicians, and those with water rescue experience were put into groups of eight.

On the east side, Fenstermaker usually counted on Snohomish County resources, but that wasn’t an option during the event. While he wasn’t as familiar with Skagit County apparatus, he knew the people, and received the resources he needed. Since then, the fire departments in the two counties have met and compared terminology and vehicle types, preparing for better communication for any future mutual aid.

On the west side, a unique approach was used to determine participation. “Each volunteer was given a number and the numbers were drawn from a hat,” said Harper. “It resolved the issue of how many and who was going into the slide area.” Still, there were more than enough jobs for everyone.

When a beam from a home was discovered within the destruction, firefighters work feverishly to uncover and search the rooms within the home where a family was killed.

When a beam from a home was discovered within the destruction, firefighters work feverishly to uncover and search the rooms within the home where a family was killed. Photo Amanda Honsowetz


Hots, in charge on the west side, says he would’ve filtered radio communication sooner. “There were so many people trying to talk on the limited radio frequencies—and at the unified command post—that it was easy to miss radio calls and some of the details that responders and experts were trying to provide,” he says. “I would’ve appointed command post aides to speak and receive information on the radio, forwarding only the most important details to me.”

Members from the Navy Search and Rescue helicopter team had turned to texting to communicate because there was so much noise around them, and there were a lot of radio transmissions. Snohomish County assets also used text messages to augment radio communications.

During rescue operations, documentation was put on hold, but when FEMA arrived, it took on that task. “We spent time developing a plan,” said Miner. “As we gathered more data, more lines of movement were drawn, and we started finding people every day.”

“It was difficult to work in the operations center knowing you are making decisions that the whole world will evaluate later,” said Stedman a month after the mudslide. “But this is our task now, to help others learn.” He believes it was good to have the relationships with other agencies and departments in place before they were needed.

Arlington firefighter Keegan Tachell agrees that relationships are important. “We came together with those we’ve trained with for years,” he said. “Now we have relationships that will last forever.”



Slipping Earth in Colorado

A landslide is a downslope movement of rock or soil, or both, occurring on the surface of rupture—either curved (rotational slide) or planar (translational slide) rupture—in which much of the material often moves as a coherent or semi-coherent mass with little internal deformation.1

Landslides occur throughout the world, under all climatic conditions and terrains, costing billions and taking thousands of lives. The double landslide that occurred earlier this year in Afghanistan buried more than 2,700 people and 350 homes.

Large landslides such as the one that occurred in Oso are typically difficult to categorize as a single class of landslide movement, according to Hazard Geologist Stephen Slaughter of the Washington Geological Survey with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “The Oso landslide can be described as a multistage landslide that displays evidence of differing landslide process, one of which may be rotational,” Slaughter said.

On May 25, just two months after the Oso mudslide, another one occurred near Collbran, Colo. Investigating a report of a water problem led three men up the Grand Mesa, one of the largest flat-topped mountains in the country. The unusually massive slide, almost five times the size of the Oso slide, first let go Sunday afternoon. It roared down the mountain face at more than 150 miles per hour, burying the three men in 48 million cubic yards of earth spread out three miles long and a half-mile wide.

The landslide in Collbran, Colo., buried three men in 48 million cubic yards of earth spread out over three miles long and a half-mile wide.

The landslide in Collbran, Colo., buried three men in 48 million cubic yards of earth spread out over three miles long and a half-mile wide. Photo courtesy Mike Lockwood/Plateau Valley Fire Department


Rescue calls in this area are not uncommon, according to the Platte Valley Fire Chief Mike Lockwood. “It wasn’t unusual to get called for a water rescue,” said Lockwood, “people often get on the wrong side when the water shifts.”

Lockwood says the magnitude of the slide was unexpected. “It’s hard to get your head around it and form a game plan,” he said. Even with 30 years’ fire experience, he’d never seen anything like it.

What made this response even more poignant for those in the rescue community was that two of the three men were firefighters in the same department as the rescuers.

Attempts to get within the slide were put on hold. “We could hear debris moving above us—the rocks sliding, trees breaking,” Lockwood said. They reached the high point, but by then, nightfall was setting in and it was still very dangerous for everyone.

Law enforcement reached out to the Snohomish County for advice. Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office SAR Sergeant Danny Wikstrom offered what he could in terms of experience. “I encouraged them to look towards the edges of the slide, where the debris would gather.”

Similar to the Oso slide, helicopters were brought in to gain some perspective, while hydrologists and geologists studied the stability of the slide area. Drones, using infrared sensors, were used to search the area for any signs of life.

Although they weren’t able to find any survivors, Wikstrom wasn’t surprised, adding “their slide was so much larger than ours.”

1. Highland LM, Bobrowsky P. The landslide handbook: A guide to understanding landslides. U.S. Geological Survey: Reston, Va., p. 5, 2008.