Rescuers try to keep rogue searches from leading to casualties
With the death toll from Saturday’s massive mudslide now at 14, firefighters and those wanting to aid in the search for survivors are growing frustrated.
Seattle Times staff reporter
DARRINGTON — Two kinds of search-and-rescue teams squared off in a crowded hallway in the Darrington Fire District 24 station late Sunday, and one was about to get hauled off to jail.
“Is there something we can sign that says we’re willing to go in?” said one of at least six young men escorted into the station by Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies. “ I just want to help.”
The group of mud-covered men had spent the day ignoring orders to stay away from the site of Saturday’s deadly mudslide to mount a wildcat search for friends buried in the muck and debris. They made their way past barricades at the risk of being arrested, or worse, becoming victims themselves.
Since Saturday, the other team in the hallway, Darrington’s volunteer firefighters, had to balance the work of rescue missions with the need to restrain the untrained and ill-equipped from heading into a continually shifting and treacherous slide that’s already claimed at least 14 lives, and likely many more.
“You’re heading in there completely blind,” Randy Dobbins, the fire station’s chief of operations, warned the group of would-be rescuers. “We appreciate what you’re trying to do. But, in our minds, we have to do this properly or we risk losing more people. Step outside of the box.”
No one was arrested, but the confrontation illustrates the growing frustration of both those tasked with rescuing people as well as their neighbors anxious to help act as a rescue operation.
But not since Saturday, the day the mudslide consumed dozens of homes near Oso, have survivors been pulled from the mud.
At each community meeting in Darrington, emergency-management personnel are repeatedly asked why people can't make a personal choice to head to search at their own risk.
“We’re not lacking in resources,” Tod Gates, incident commander, told one Darrington resident at a meeting Sunday night.
“Please let the professionals do this, as painful as it is for you.”
The stance was somewhat different at a community meeting Monday night. Gregg Sieloff, the deputy incident commander said some Darrington residents will be able to register with the search provided they have proper clothing, insurance and work under the supervision of the Fire Department. Snohomish County warned though that volunteers from outside the area wouldn’t be welcome.
Helpers from the National Guard and workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are expected sometime Tuesday. When they arrive, local volunteers will likely be sent home, Sieloff said.
Pam Fritchman, who offers aid support for Fire District 24 missions, witnessed the well-intentioned frustration of the young men in the fire station Sunday night. She understands why they pressured firefighters to allow them to continue searching.
“It’s expected,” Fritchman said. “But we don’t need them to be our next rescue mission.”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org