Survivors cope with help of community and even strangers
Survivors of the mudslide say they are coping with the consequences with the help of community members, and sometimes hearing sympathetic words from people they’ve never even met.
Seattle Times staff reporter
OSO, Snohomish County — Seth Jefferds doesn’t know how he would be coping if not for the support of his fellow Oso firefighters and the community.
Jefferds’ wife and granddaughter were among the 30 people confirmed killed in the March 22 mudslide that also destroyed his home and those of dozens of his neighbors. Thirteen people are missing.
“It’s been tough,” a tearful Jefferds said during a news conference Friday at the Oso Fire Station, where he spoke publicly for the first time.
“I can’t tell you how tough it’s been and how tough it’s going to be,” he said. “But without the people in this Fire Department and this community — people I don’t know, people I have never met, showing up or sending cards or letters ... It makes me feel better for sure.”
Rescuers found the body of Jefferds’ 4-month-old granddaughter Sanoah Huestis about 10 feet from where the body of his wife, Christina Jefferds, was found, said Natasha Huestis, mother of Sanoah and Christina’s daughter.
On the day of the mudslide, both Natasha Huestis and Seth Jefferds were away from the home.
Seth Jefferds, a volunteer firefighter and captain with the Oso Fire Department, came home to find the house flattened and his wife and granddaughter missing, his family said.
Although the Fire Department was at the center of the disaster, it wasn’t until about five days after the 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 the news conference.
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 heard 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.”
On Friday, environmental, medical and public-safety experts working at the site of the deadly mudslide said the threat of chemical and biological contamination is minimal.
The amount of hazardous material from the shattered residential neighborhood — such as pesticides, bleach, sewage and propane — has been diluted in the 1 million cubic yards of dirt displaced by the slide, the experts said.
The biggest immediate danger is to local residents who get their water from wells, who have been notified their water source must be treated before it can be used, said Dr. Gary Goldbaum of the Snohomish Health District. They also warn that some may have to disinfect their wells.
Dick Walker, a spill responder from the state Department of Ecology, said tests downriver show that there has been “very, very minimal” chemical or biological contamination of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
He said the slide’s movement actually pushed much of the residential debris away from the riverbank.
The larger danger to the river will be posed by the dirt and mud that have altered the river’s course and will affect salmon fisheries, Walker said.
The long-term effect on the ecosystem will not be known for some time, he said.
“We have people watching, and we’re not finding chemicals getting into the river,” Walker said.
Dr. Richard Bradley, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) incident-support physician, said there have been no health incidents among those working in the debris field other than the usual “pains, sprains, cuts and lacerations.”
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on Friday said it will grant a six-month extension for tax returns for families affected by the mudslide in Snohomish County.
The announcement came a day after four members of the state’s congressional delegation — Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Reps. Suzan DelBene, of Medina, and Rick Larsen, of Everett — asked IRS Commissioner John Koskinen for a quick decision on the filing reprieve.
The March 22 mudslide, whose official death toll stands at 30, hit less than a month before the April 15 tax deadline.
Families now have until Oct. 15 to file their returns.
In addition, the IRS is waiving late deposit penalties for federal payroll- and excise-tax deposits normally due on or after March 22 and before April 7 if the deposits are made by April 7. Details on available relief can be found on the disaster relief page on IRS.gov.
Christine Clarridge: firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times staff reporter Kyung M. Song contributed to this report.