Originally published April 5, 2014 in The Tri-City Herald
ARLINGTON — It seems like a normal spring afternoon in Haller Park, along the banks of the Stillaguamish River.
People walk and bike along the river’s pedestrian bridge, and kids on swingsets are pushed by adults beneath a cloudless blue sky.
But nearby are big white satellite dishes on top of network news trucks, and the accompanying idle of electric generators. It’s a constant reminder of the wall of mud, water and debris 13 miles to the northeast on Highway 530.
There, people in brightly colored hard hats and reflective vests continue sifting through the mud beside a bevy of backhoes, looking for any traces of the men, women and children who disappeared in the March 22 mudslide near Oso.
Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, a public information officer helping guide media in and out of the site for several days this week, said seeing the devastation doesn’t get any easier.
“It’s awe-inspiring in all the wrong ways, but it’s a poignant experience every single time,” he said. “Each time I see a little bit different angle of it, and just the realization of the scale, the magnitude of this thing.”
The slide site covers almost a square mile, and is littered with natural and man-made debris.
Near the edge of the slide sits a Kubota tractor, carried an unknown distance from someone’s yard and deposited near a small group of still-standing trees.
In another section of the slide sits what used to be a car or truck, so smashed, twisted and mud-caked that a single wheel is the only hint to what it was before the mud hit.
John Bentley of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, said the mud is 50 to 75 feet deep in places.
Bentley is part of FEMA’s Washington urban search and rescue task force, an 80-person team that is one of 28 nationwide. Another FEMA team from California was scheduled to join the recovery effort late last week.
Workers start their shifts at sunrise and don’t stop until sunset, Bentley said.
They’re searching the debris field in a grid pattern, with eight flags marking the boundaries. Excavators and rescue workers dig down to native soil to move piles of debris.
Once cleared, an area’s color demarcation is changed from pink to green, said Lt. Rob Fisher of the Snohomish County Fire Department.
Dealing with standing water has been challenging. When first responders arrived at the scene, the water level was above their heads, Bentley said.
Thirty people were killed, and 13 are missing. All but one of the bodies were taken to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office in Everett, where the victims are identified.