Some 70 Guardsmen were activated to help with search and rescue efforts in Oso, Wash., where at least 45 people were killed in a mudslide. (Spc. Matthew Sissel/Defense Department)
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Washington Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Jonathon Hernas, a member of the 141st Civil Engineer Squadron, maneuvers across debris and mud while searching for missing persons. (Air National Guard)
Tech. Sgt. Tayler Bates and Tech Sgt. Tony Rohrenbach, members of the Washington Air National Guard's 141st Civil Engineer Squadron, discuss how to remove debris to drain the water from their search area. (Staff Sgt. Rory Featherston/Army)
On Day 9 of the search for the missing, Lt. Col. Curtis Puckett watched as workers retrieved the remains of another victim buried in the deadly March 22 mudslide near Oso, Wash.
Rain had hampered the efforts of search and recovery teams for days, but the sun had finally come out. To Puckett, commander of the Air National Guard 141st Civil Engineering Squadron at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., the mile-wide swath of devastation looked like a giant blender had churned up the hillside and everything on it before dumping it out in the valley.
Now Puckett focused on the victim, who was handed over to members of his unit for eventual transfer to a medical examiner. He described a slow procession to a temporary storage facility, a bowing of heads, a moment of silence, a chaplain’s prayer. It reminded Puckett of the dignified transfer of America’s war dead.
Some 70 members of the Washington guard spent a week at the site of the mudslide that has claimed at least 45, 15 of whom were still listed as missing April 3.
Their mission: Find the remains as quickly as possible so they could be identified and returned to their loved ones. “You can imagine how gut-wrenching it is for families, not knowing,” Puckett said.
They dug through target areas — places where relatives and residents told them a home ought to be, wary of an endless list of hazards that included sharp-edged objects, household chemicals and propane tanks.
For every person they found, “we cherish them and treat them just like one of our own,” Puckett said.
In protective Tyvek suits, waders and hard hats, the guard’s search and extraction teams moved mud and debris with shovels and excavators and sometimes by hand. They came upon remains buried 10, 15 and 20 feet deep in the muck.
Medics went in with searchers in case they got injured. A vehicle maintenance group kept trucks and equipment running. One team worked with about a dozen local medical examiners overwhelmed by the sheer volume of fatalities.
“For an Air National Guard unit, this is a precedent. I don’t think there’s been any organization that has helped out a medical examiner this much,” Pickett said. “They had no idea we had this capability. They were very grateful.”
The guardsmen began at daylight and worked until nightfall. They slept, exhausted, on cots and sleeping bags.
They had spent seven years training for a calamity like this. In biannual exercises, they simulated responses to such catastrophic events as nuclear waste explosions, wildfires and weapons of mass destruction. They learned how it usually takes first responders 48 hours to reach their limits and call in reinforcements.
In Oso, the first responders never left. Agencies across the state joined them, forming what Puckett described as “a completely unified effort. It was amazing.”
When the work got really hard, when the grief of the families of the missing weighed on them, the guardsmen reminded themselves of the service they were providing to this community, 2nd Lt. John Zielinski said.
Zielinski spent four years on active duty before joining the Air National Guard in 2010. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. But his work in Oso, he said, “is the hardest work I’ve done.”
It was equally rewarding. “I’m glad we got the call to be able to support them like this,” he said. “Everyone wanted to be out there every second they could.”