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Mud and tears: Crosscut Exclusive

A Seattle Police Department mobile command unit parked on Rainier Avenue South, near the site of a drive-by shooting that occurred on May 15, 2014 Credit: Bill Lucia

Jessica Nemnich teaches agriculture classes at a high school in Marysville, Washington. Her husband, Robert, owns a small excavation company. They live on a 25-acre farm with their four kids on the outskirts of Darrington. The town of about 1,400 is nestled in a corridor rich with rivers and forests, on the western flank of the North Cascades.

Both Nemnichs are volunteer firefighters with Darrington Fire District 24. Last Saturday they responded to a call about a mudslide near the town of Oso.

They travelled to the scene with one other firefighter in a Ford F-350 utility rig, expecting to find a barn, or maybe a house, pushed onto Highway 530, a road that Jessica uses regularly to commute to her teaching job. “When we pulled up,” Robert said, “all we saw was a roof in the road, and a tree.”

Robert and Jessica Nemnich, volunteer firefighters with District 24.

A 15-foot-high wall of mud had completely barricaded Highway 530. The Stillaguamish River, dammed by slide debris, was backing up and water was flowing across the roadway. Robert saw bystanders smoking cigarettes near propane tanks.

The week before Jessica had responded to a car accident that required a helicopter evacuation. For a small fire district that was an out of the ordinary operation. But she knew immediately that this mudslide was an emergency on an entirely different scale.

She could hear yelling.

“We had people from two different directions hollering for help,” she said. “There was a little boy screaming that somebody was stuck.”

The volunteer firefighters tried to assess the situation, worried about hazards like downed electrical wires and flooding. Looking at the massive pile of mud, Jessica was unsure what kind of equipment and assistance to even ask for as she radioed other responders.

Darrington Fire District 24 is staffed entirely by volunteers, with a core group of about 12-15 firefighters. Among them are five married couples, including the Nemnichs.

The district is headquartered in a one-story, dark blue station, with red trim and white bay doors. It is one of the last buildings drivers pass as they head west out of Darrington toward Oso, which is about 15 miles away on Highway 530. The steep and craggy north face of Whitehorse Mountain provides a dramatic alpine backdrop. Across the street is an IGA grocery store. About a mile to the west is the Hampton Lumber Mills.

Although District 24 is a small outfit, it was one of the first to respond after a rain-soaked hillside collapsed unexpectedly last Saturday around 11 a.m., sweeping away dozens of houses and at least 16 lives and leaving a nearly one-square-mile wasteland of mud, trees and debris.

Before other agencies arrived with helicopters, hovercraft and rescue dogs, District 24 firefighters worked alongside local residents, family members and volunteers from other rural fire districts to remove survivors from the rubble. They used chainsaws, their hands and ATVs. They waded through deep mud and watched as the unstable hillside continued to collapse, shaking the ground as they worked.

In total, they rescued 13 people from the east side of the debris field last Saturday, according to the district’s health and safety officer, Jeff McClelland. “Anytime you do that, it’s a great thing,” he said. A volunteer firefighter for over 20 years, McClelland's full-time job is managing a farm about six miles west of Darrington. The farm produces artisanal goat cheese.

His wife, Jan, works with him — on the farm and as a volunteer firefighter with the district. They arrived at the slide scene together last Saturday.

“When I pulled up,” he said, “I looked at it and thought, 'no.' "

A woman told them about the approximate location of an injured man. Along with a third volunteer firefighter they made their way through the debris field. It took them an hour and a half to cover a quarter mile. McClelland was loaded down with heavy gear. At times the mud swallowed him up to his waist.

They found the man. His left arm was gone. The force of the slide had stripped him of his clothing. He told the rescuers he was in his home when the mudslide hit. But McClelland said they found him under some trees "in the middle of nowhere." After wrapping him in an aluminum blanket the firefighters moved him to an area where he could be airlifted to a hospital. His condition is improving and he'll likely live, said McClelland.

Even though he has helped save lives, the catastrophe is weighing on McClelland. “I’ve cried every day since I’ve been out there,” he said. At one point, he found a book titled “Three Little Orphan Kitties.” He picked it up off the ground and opened it. The text read: “The world is a beautiful place.”

“I broke down,” he said.

Darren Parks, a new volunteer with the district, was at an emergency medical technician training class when the hillside came down. He joined the search for survivors on Sunday. Before the rescue dogs arrived, it was difficult to know where to look. “It’s frustrating to know that people are there and to not be able to get to them,” he said.

With the firefighters battling conditions that are physically and mentally exhausting, Parks said that they all make an effort to look out for one another. “When we go home we call each other,” he said, “We make sure everybody’s all right.”

“Darren, you were concerned about me last night,” Jeff said. “I was having a hard time last night.”

“I’m concerned about all you guys,” Parks replied.

By Tuesday night, after three days of search operations, hopes of finding survivors dimmed. Responders said they had likely located eight bodies in addition to the 16 already confirmed dead. There were 176 people unaccounted for, though authorities said some of the names on that list were likely duplicates. (Snohomish County officials revised this number on Wednesday night, saying 90 people were missing and 35 were classified as "status unknown.") 

Rain fell hard throughout the day, though occasionally the sun broke through the clouds. It was extremely difficult to move through the debris field. Firefighters walked on downed trees and the remnants of homes to avoid the quicksand-like slurry of mud. In bulky firefighter boots this was a challenge.

“You step on those trees that don’t have bark on them, it’s just slick as ice," said Eric Finzemer, the fire district’s medical services officer.

Finzemer is familiar with tragedy and trauma. For over two decades he has worked as an emergency medical services responder and is currently a full-time EMT. He has seen many terrible car wrecks. But his emotions were raw after days spent pulling grim artifacts like children’s clothing from the rubble.

“I went home the other night, it wasn’t until I got my wife on the phone," said Finzemer. "I heard her voice, I said, it’s horrible."  

“You know how many people are gone,” he added. “This is personal.”

Parks agreed: “Everybody knows somebody.”

As the firefighters discussed the rescue and recovery operation on Tuesday evening, community volunteers organized axes and chainsaws donated by Home Depot. Somebody asked for a Band-Aid. A rescue dog named Stratus was lying on the floor next to his rain-soaked handler. The American flag outside flew at half-mast. Satellite trucks and reporters jammed the grocery store parking lot. Rain fell hard on the metal roof of the station house. 

“This is not going to help us,” Robert Nemnich said, referring to the precipitation.

As the rain fell, Jessica Nemnich continued to recount events from last Saturday. Once more rescue workers arrived on the scene, Jessica broke away with the district’s assistant fire chief to search for survivors. They found 81-year-old Gary McPherson trapped under some 5 feet of debris. McPherson's wife Linda, Darrington's retired head librarian, perished in the slide. She had been sitting right next to her husband when the mud came.

With a crew of roughly 50 civilians, the firefighters extricated McPherson. While using untrained civilians in a rescue effort is generally considered dangerous, Nemnich believes there was no other choice. “We pretty much had to utilize that help,” she said.

Convinced that the roadway to the slide site was safe, Robert Nemnich called his 18-year-old son and asked him to deliver a pickup truckload of supplies, including saline solution, chainsaws, ropes and a raft. Jessica said that she didn't know the McPhersons well, but Robert added that the couple's "nieces were in our 4-H Club at one time."

Despite the immediateness of the tragedy and the response effort, the rescuers and the community are beginning to look ahead. The Nemnichs expressed concerns about how long Highway 530 would remain closed. The road is a vital artery for residents in the area.

The drive from Darrington to Marysville along Highway 530 is about 45 miles. The shortest alternative route, following Route 20, is twice as long. Meaning that Jessica Nemnich’s 45-minute commute will stretch to nearly two hours.

“If the road doesn’t open, this town will die economically,” she said. “A lot of people are going to be forced to move.”

“We won’t move,” Robert Nemnich chimed in. “My family’s from here. You just regroup and figure out how to make it happen.”

Through it all, Eric Finzemer is proud of how his community is holding up, and helping out: "It's more than any large city could ever do."

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