Residents join official search for Washington State mudslide victims

by Reuters
Wednesday, 26 March 2014 11:00 GMT

By Jonathan Kaminsky

DARRINGTON, Wash., March 26 (Reuters) - Residents from a nearby logging town have won their battle to join rescue workers searching for survivors in the dangerous rubble of a deadly mudslide in Washington State, easing tensions within a deeply traumatized community.

In the days that followed the disaster, many Darrington residents ignored official orders to stay away, using their intimate knowledge of the land to conduct wildcat searches for missing friends and loved ones among debris that has created quicksand-like conditions.

But, as the sun rose on the fifth day of recovery efforts, the same authorities who had in some cases threatened them with arrest changed course, allowing local volunteers with proper clothing and equipment to help in the official effort.

"These people want to volunteer and they don't want to butter bread ... They've got the know-how, they've got the experience," Dan Rankin, mayor of Darrington, said after a town hall meeting late on Tuesday.

"We fought for that to happen," he said.

State and local officials said that the arrangement would continue indefinitely.

Emergency crews were using dogs and specialist electronic equipment to try to find survivors and bodies, as well as removing debris by hand, in one of the worst such disasters in the United States.

Among the 50 volunteers who went out with official search crews on Tuesday was Dayn Brunner, 42, whose sister, Summer, was driving on State Road 530 near Oso when the slide hit. She has not been heard from since and is among scores of people still counted as missing.

The death toll climbed to 24 on Tuesday.

Though it was Brunner's first day as part of a sanctioned crew, he had been out searching with his two teenage sons every day since Saturday. Working under Federal Emergency Management Agency-certified responders, he said, the going was much slower, which was frustrating.

"But I understand it," he said. "We want to get in there and grab stuff and move it. But if there's bodies in there you can't just grab a whole bunch of stuff. You have to have a method."

Authorities realized that locals were likely to continue conducting unauthorized searches despite warnings of extreme danger, Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said.

Darrington's supply of loggers and heavy equipment also dovetails with what the search efforts need, Calkins said.

"The loggers can go in and clear any trees that are half-fallen that would present a risk to rescuers. Heavy equipment can obviously move dirt," he said.

"That becomes a fairly natural marriage and allows the community to be integrated in this rescue in the way that they wanted to be," he said. (Writing by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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