(Recasts with interview with rescuer, adds comments from
By Jonathan Kaminsky
DARRINGTON, Wash., March 26 Hours after a
Washington state mudslide buried a community, Dayn Brunner took
his life in his hands and dashed into the expanse of cement-like
muck in search of his sister.
Brunner was among dozens of people who had defied threats of
arrest to search for loved ones on their own after a 1,500-foot
long section of rain-soaked hillside tumbled onto a river near
the town of Oso on Saturday, smothering a state road and
swallowing up dozens of homes.
"It's been hell. My sister is in the debris. She was driving
on the road when the slide came down," Brunner, 42, said in an
interview. "We were told not to go in there. We went in there
anyway. We had to look."
On Tuesday, authorities finally agreed to allow many of the
searchers to join official rescue workers seeking survivors in
the dangerous rubble, helping to ease tensions, if not
heartache, within the deeply traumatized community.
"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."
Brunner and his two teenaged sons used their bare hands to
dig through dense mud for five hours on Saturday, until the sky
was pitch black. Yet Dayn's sister Summer, 36, remains lost -
one of 176 people listed as missing four days after the tragedy
that likely killed at least 24 people.
Wildcat rescuers, many from around the nearby logging town
of Darrington, used their intimate knowledge of the terrain to
navigate roadblocks and mount desperate searches.
Randy Hayden, 56, a general contractor from the Seattle
suburb of Edmonds who owns property around Darrington, said he
knew several searchers who persisted despite being turned away
by officials, with one paddling in by canoe.
"A lot of my friends said, 'You don't want us? We'll find
other ways to get in,'" he noted, adding that he, too, was
hoping to join the official search effort.
"I've got a small tractor with a backhoe and am hoping that
I can be of service."
SCENES OF DEVASTATION
Others like retired mortician Todd Ronning were tempted to
go search for missing friends, but ultimately decided against
it. In Ronning's case, he feared triggering post-traumatic
stress from a career dealing with the aftermath of other
disasters, such as plane crashes.
"Having PTSD, you don't really want to do that," he said.
Authorities began allowing the volunteers in when they
realized locals were likely to continue conducting unauthorized
searches despite warnings of extreme danger, Washington State
Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said.
State and local officials said the current arrangement would
continue indefinitely, taking advantage of the skills of the
local population that was highly motivated to help.
"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," Calkins 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.
For Brunner, being allowed to join the official search
effort has not raised his hopes of finding his sister alive in
the rubble. He said he gave up on that on Monday after realizing
the devastation was just too great.
"When you see four or five houses jammed in a 200-by-200
foot area and there's bodies in there, you know that there's
nothing left," he said. "Cars that have come out the size of a
washing machine, you know there's no hope."
Now working under responders certified by the Federal
Emergency Management Agency, the going was much slower, which
Brunner said was frustrating. But he said he understood the
reasons and appreciated that the effort was now more strategic.
"We want to get in there and grab stuff and move it," he
said. "But if there's bodies in there you can't just grab a
whole bunch of stuff. You have to have a method."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Richard Chang)