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Washington volunteers dedicate lives to mudslide recovery

Shelly McGlothern operates a forklift as volunteers fill a container with donated goods for volunteers working at the Oso mudslide .

The Globe and Mail/Justin Giovannetti

Since the ground gave way, volunteers have stared down sheriff's deputies, worked under the cover of darkness to build the only road into the mudslide and maxed their credit cards with rentals of heavy equipment. In the process, they have willed themselves into the centre of a search effort that authorities have suggested may be fruitless.

After first asking locals to stay away, officials are now applauding their hard work. The volunteers begin at dawn and search into the night to help find the bodies of family, friends and neighbours. When they wear out their chainsaws and gear, neighbours bring replacements. Despite helping to pull 34 bodies from the debris field, volunteers have promised they won't quit until the 10 thought still to be missing are found.

On March 22, locals in farmhouses and bungalows were enjoying a clear morning when the ground on Slide Hill began falling at 10:37 a.m. Within seconds, a 2 1/2-kilometre wall of mud and rocks slammed into Steelhead Drive in the centre of Oso, burying 49 homes.

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Jimmy Jira was casting from his boat on the tranquil Quinault River when his cellphone began to vibrate with news of the mudslide. His mother and sister live in Oso, but he thought nothing of it. A previous slide in 2006 had fallen harmlessly nearby.

"My phone was ringing off the hook and I finally answered and asked how bad it was? 'Steelhead Drive is gone.' I almost had a heart attack," says Mr. Jira, noting his relatives survived. "I've been running ever since then."

Sixteen days after the disaster, he's wearing his blue work jumpsuit with "Jimmy" stitched on his right breast pocket, despite having not spent a full day at his job as a facilities manager since the slide. He's driven hundreds of kilometres daily helping keep volunteers supplied. With the mud blocking the main road, the detour is a four-hour winding road that cuts along the edges of a number of state parks.

Three days after the slide, Mr. Jira spent a day in the mud helping. He says a single day was enough for him, and he decided to help with logistics.

"All of the people in there, those guys with chainsaws and equipment, they are privateers, they are good local people. They've been through a lot. Falling into muck, swimming around, they are bruised and cut up and they just won't quit," he says with pride. "Authorities wouldn't let them help at first, but these guys make stuff happen."

Some volunteers took to talk radio to vent about the excessive caution of professional search teams, angry that searchers left when the ground was unstable. While those from state and federal teams scraped at the ground slowly, excavating at a forensic pace, locals armed with an intimate knowledge of the shattered local area tore into the countryside and cut their way into buried homes.

Many remain haunted by the cries for help they heard in the first hours, as authorities held them away from the still collapsing hillside.

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Oso was founded as a fishing village along the Stillaguamish River in northeastern Washington state and its 180 residents bridged two worlds. To the east is the logging community of Darrington in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. In the west, Arlington sits on either side of the main interstate linking Vancouver and Seattle.

A bright sign shouts "Git 'er done" to the volunteers driving to Oso every morning.

It's a Democratic county, but many here are deep red Republicans and speak openly of their dislike for big government. When the first calls came that Oso was in trouble, volunteers jumped into pickup trucks without a second thought. When professional search crews paused because the ground was unstable, locals continued to dig.

A large American flag flies at half-mast from a tall cedar, the only tree left standing in the centre of the debris. A local logger, Albie Wesson, helped clear the tree and install the flag nearly a week after the slide – a turning point in relations with authorities, according to those who were there.

A few days after the flag was erected, local fire chief Travis Hots thanked the volunteers. "They've been instrumental," he said. "Some family members found a body the other day. They said they'd grieve for two days and then get back to help find someone else's family. That's the people up here, they are doers."

Colby Young's home was spared by only a few metres as the mud rushed by. The 20-year-old college student was in the Arlington industrial park to pick up supplies on Monday; he had been in the mud searching every day.

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"That first week was all bodies," he says, sighing. He's largely quiet as locals arrive with a smile and handshake, offering supplies. His parents' home has now been turned into a depot for equipment to keep the volunteers going.

He isn't the youngest person helping in Oso. With nearly the entire town involved, some as young as 16 have arrived with chainsaws and helped cut away at the fallen trees blocking efforts.

Shelly McGlothern has barely seen her husband Dave in two weeks. She's been operating a borrowed forklift at a donated warehouse near Arlington's airport. After locals were asked to donate, she's helped fill and empty the warehouse three times, sending pallets to Oso with water, shovels, jerry cans filled with gas, gloves, flashlights, socks, snacks, rain jackets, duct tape and oil.

"He showed up on Wednesday morning with a chainsaw to help. He's up at 5:30 a.m. and isn't home before 8 p.m. every day. He won't stop until they find everyone," she says of her husband. He soon called to warn her he'd put a $2,000-a-week backhoe rental on the couple's credit card.

Ms. McGlothern says FEMA has told her they may soon put her husband on payroll and begin to cover the immense costs he and many others have volunteered to take on.

Mr. Jira is still perplexed by the early reaction of authorities. "It's a natural disaster," he says, "they should have allowed any local to help."

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About the Author
Ontario legislative reporter

Based in Toronto, Justin Giovannetti is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario legislative reporter. He previously worked out of the newspaper’s Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. bureaus. He is a graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University and has also worked for CTV in Quebec. More


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