Washington Mudslide: First Responders Struggle with Fatigue, Grief and Danger

By Lorraine Boissoneault
Published: March 25, 2014

Despite the best efforts of first responders to carry out rescue operations in the aftermath of a massive mudslide in Snohomish County, Wash., rescuers are losing hope after three days of searching. 

"Most of us in this community believe that we don't expect anyone to be found [alive]," said Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington at a press conference on Monday. "But I'm a man of faith, and I believe in miracles," Pennington added.

As the face of the rescue efforts, Pennington has had to battle fatigue, sorrow and the disappointment of local citizens who have been waiting desperately for news of lost family members. At one point during his press conference, an upset woman began disparaging the efforts of the emergency management community, reports the Herald of Everett.

"It's still light out there, you should be out looking," the woman said while Pennington was talking.

Pennington acknowledged that, "We as a community as a county … are moving toward a recovery operation," meaning the rescuers will soon be focusing their efforts on recovering the bodies of victims rather than finding people who might still be alive, reported CNN. 

(MORE: Mudslide Relief Efforts Continue)

Since Saturday, first responders have been working around the clock to locate and recover as many people as possible. On the first day of operations, two rescue helicopters and one from the U.S. Navy were able to pluck around 18 people out of the muck, said the Herald of Everett. At that point in time the muddy sludge was deemed to be too treacherous to navigate by foot after several rescuers got stuck, leading to fears of more casualties. Rescuers began focusing all their efforts on helicopter operations.

"The patients were very hard to spot from the air. They blended in with the surroundings," said Central Pierce Fire and Rescue officer Ed Hrivnak to local news station Q13Fox.

By Monday, search and rescue operations included aircraft, search dogs and sonar equipment. The number of victims rose to 14 people and 176 were reported missing, although Pennington cautioned that there were likely duplicates on the list. 

"Our firemen have worked day and night," said Nancy Rambo, secretary for the fire commissioner. "We're all so sad."

Rescue workers have also had to deal with locals who want to assist with search operations and are putting themselves in danger, reported the Seattle Times.

"We appreciate what you're trying to do. But in our minds, we have to do this properly or we risk losing more people," said Randy Dobbins, the fire station's chief of operations. 

(MORE: Mudslide Survival Stories)

The Herald of Everett reported that the National Guard would be sending an 11-person Fatality Search and Recovery Unit to Snohomish County on Tuesday to provide relief to the local search and rescue teams. The Guard has also offered to send chaplains for grief counseling. 

The Red Cross also promised to send more mental health workers to the area to assist grieving families and first responders struggling to cope with the extent of the devastation. 

"Be patient with yourself and others," the Red Cross advises on its website. "It's common to have any number of temporary stress reactions such as anger, frustration and anxiety." 

MORE: Massive Mudslide Kills 14 in Wash. State

This March 24, 2014 photo, made available by the Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, shows a view of the rescue efforts from the deadly mudslide in Oso, Wash. (Central Pierce Fire and Rescue)

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