Every time the whistle blew, dozens of searchers would stop, remove their helmets and turn towards its source. Another body was being pulled from the muddy tomb of the Oso slide.
“It was an emotional thing,” said Terry Cooks, a member of David Thompson Search and Rescue and part of a team from Lincoln County that traveled to Washington to help find victims of that state’s deadliest natural disaster since the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
On March 22, a massive landslide engulfed part of Oso, Wash., about 60 miles north of Seattle. The slide took out dozens of homes and covered more than a square mile. As of April 16, 39 bodies have been pulled from the site and four people are still missing.
Less than two weeks after the slide, Washington state officials were looking for additional rescuers and K9 dogs trained to find bodies. David Thompson Search and Rescue’s K9 unit was asked to join the effort. It had worked with Washington teams before and is part of the National Search Dog Alliance, according to the unit’s leader, JoMay Wyatt-Pescador. On April 3, a team of three dogs and four people, including Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe, made the eight-hour drive to Oso.
The team helped search for three days. Bowe said the slide was divided up into 100-foot wide lanes and a dog and rescuer would work the lane as far as they could. In some cases, the mud and debris was just too difficult to pass.
“What really hit me was the overall smell,” Bowe said. “There was just so much decay, household goods, gases, oils, everything.”
Bowe talked to locals also searching the pile, which in places was 60 feet deep, who said that while they knew the land along the North Fork of the Stillagumish River could slide, they never imagined one of this scale.
The mudslide was littered with trees, cars and debris, Cooks said, making it rough on rescuer and dog alike. Each team worked four-hour shifts before calling it a day.
“Everyone was putting so much effort into the search, even the dogs, they were working their hearts out,” Cooks said. “It tugged at your heart.”
Whenever the dogs picked up the scent of a body, they would bark or stop and sit down. Then another dog team would come to that spot to see if it tracked the same scent. If it did, the dog teams would leave the area and workers with heavy equipment would start sifting the debris. When remains were found, a whistle would be blown and people would stop working and pay their respects as the body – or parts of a body – were taken away from the site.
Cooks said it was an emotional trip but one he is glad they made.
“Anyone with the opportunity to go and help would have helped,” Cooks said. “That’s what humans do when they see that someone is hurting. We reach out and help.”
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