At The Landslide Front Line, Comparisons To Mount St. Helens Devastation

Mar 28, 2014

A local fire chief is warning communities around the deadly landslide in northwest Washington to brace for a jump in the death toll Friday.

Meanwhile, fresh crews are rotating in to relieve exhausted first responders. Friday is the seventh day of the rescue and recovery mission at the place known in shorthand as “the pile.”

You Can’t Even Fully Understand What We’re Up Against’

All this week, fire and rescue personnel at the scene of the deadly landslide have been sharing variations on the same thought.

“You just can’t fathom what we’re up against out there until you get out there and see the lay of the land," said district fire chief Travis Hots. "You can’t look at a photograph and understand it. You can’t even fully understand what we’re up against out there and what has happen even if you watch on TV. It’s unreal.”

On a carefully-controlled media tour to the edge of the landslide, I finally got to see for myself.

Steve Mason led the way in his yellow firefighter jacket and battalion chief helmet. Mason took us to an overlook where we could see the mudflow — a vast lumpy, plain that is almost all grey. There’s water collecting in low spots and splintered, tree trunks scattered all over. From this distance, they look like spilled matchsticks.

Around the edges of this forbidding debris field are signs of homes and structures, but they are barely recognizable.

“In some cases, we have had houses that are more intact than others," said Mason. "Some of them look like they’ve been put in a blender and dropped on ground.”

The scene reminds me of the aftermath of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

“Well, the earth moved," said Mason. "It’s the same type of analogy, I would say on a smaller scale than [Mount St. Helens]. There were homes in the way and the mountain came down on them.”

Waist-Deep Mud

In the middle distance, searchers and heavy equipment operators work. They stand out in brightly colored outfits of yellow, orange and blue, with a lot of red helmets.

They move very slowly.

“It’s kind of like forensic digging," said Mason. "What we’re doing, you have people around who are watching. They look at the area. They bring the machine in. The machine very gingerly picks up small bites of material. Set it off to the side. People go through that material. People look where the machine has just pulled out the material. If it’s OK, the machine goes back and pulls some more material.”

The squish, squish of boots in mud may become one of the signature sounds of this disaster. It's been raining again and Mason says navigating around “waist-deep” mud presents a constant challenge.

“We’ve had people bring plywood in, cut it into strips, so the workers can get out here, back and forth faster," said Mason. "We’re building a [street] network out there to get out there.”

It was strangely quiet when I first got out of our van. The highway dead-ends at a wall of mud and debris. I could see lots of rescue rigs and yellow back hoes and little bobcat loaders staged there. But none of them were running. I soon realized why.

A group of relatives was there. They’d come to see the place where one or more of their loved ones presumably took their last breaths. It was a very somber and powerful moment.

Such pauses to give families access for remembrance and communion are happening, sadly, multiple times a day.