(Recasts with interview with rescuer, adds comments from residents)
By Jonathan Kaminsky
DARRINGTON, Wash., March 26 (Reuters) - 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.”
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