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Deep into darkness: SAR dogs and the Oso mudslide

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The burnished-red Golden Retriever stands in the midst of death; he’s been here before. He raises his nose to the slight breeze, using his 220 million scent receptors to go to work. While his handler might notice a teaspoon of sugar added to her morning coffee, her dog can scent-detect that same teaspoon dispersed in a body of water the equivalent size of two Olympic swimming pools. He opens his mouth slightly, licking at the air and rolling a smell over his Jacobsen’s organ. He’s too old to search now, but for three hundred acres all around, teams of dogs and their dedicated handlers trudge through the muck, relentless. Sadly, Oso is nothing but a recovery now, and yet scores of volunteers continue to search.

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“Deep into that darkness peering,
Long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting,
Dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream about.” Edgar Allan Poe

The dogs at The Pile, as searchers have aptly named the site of one of the most fatal mudslides in United States history, function to their greatest ability considering the contents of the mud they slog through. And although an occasional canine can be seen wearing a SAR vest, most go without. At a disaster site like Oso’s, a vest can mean getting hung up on debris, or worse. Retrievers Tryon and Nexus, German Shepherd Stratus and Pit Bull Terrier Relic are just a few of the talented SAR dogs working the scene of what may very well be the most disastrous mudslide in United States history. At 10:37AM PST on March 22nd, 2014, a slope above Oso, Washington, gave way, gaining speed and obliterating everything in its path. Minutes later, a second landslide hit with less force, and smaller rumbles continued for days after the initial disaster. Among the first 911 callers was a mother whose argument with her 9-year-old daughter ended up saving her life. The minutes delay saved her from being crushed under tons of mud and debris; instead, she stood at the edge what would fast become a sodden graveyard and called for signs of life, called for help.

In the early days, searchers were seriously hampered by the quicksand-like quality of the mud. Homes, cars, trees, pets, livestock, and people had been whirled into a syrupy, jagged mass that was impossible to climb. Paths were slowly created using wooden planks and the field was shored up to enable rescue workers access after what seemed like an eternity of waiting. SAR dogs, as usual, quickly became invaluable members of the group with their air-scenting and water-searching ability to track human scent in ways humans can only dream of doing.

There are actually many types of SAR dogs. There are three basic categories – tracking, trailing and air-scenting. But within those groups are a multitude of specialties. In an event such as Oso’s record-breaking mudslide, it helps if dogs are capable not only of air-scenting but of water work. Humans shed rafts – scent-laden skin cells – everywhere they go at a rate of approximately 40,000 cells every minute. The resulting cone of unique scent emanating from a body is how a dog finds the missing. An air-scenting dog starts at the wide end of the scent cone, slowly working their way to the narrower base where the lost person will be found. Although a SAR dog can be asked to locate a particular person’s scent, which is even more unique than a fingerprint, they can also execute the “find” command for any human in a given area. When it comes to a water search, a dog needs to be trained to hone in on the bodily gases rising from under the water. Not all dogs excel at water searches; some are simply better at it than others. One major problem in water is pinpointing a find. Wind, current, and the water’s natural fluctuations make it all but impossible for a dog to locate a body as specifically as an air-scenting dog can on solid ground. As a result, searches in bodies of water involve divers who are able to carry out an underwater grid search when the SAR dogs alert from boats. And in a mudslide such as the one in Oso, when the site is more liquid than solid, typical air-scenting skills do not stand alone. Dogs work on platforms when the ground is too unstable to set paws on, alerting to human scent below the murky surface and letting the ground-pounding searchers take over narrowing it down with their equipment and poles. As The Pile became more dirt and debris than water, and SAR dogs were finally able to walk directly on it, discoveries slowly became more specific. But since Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials have stated that certain points in the debris may have pockets as deep as seventy feet, the recovery remains anything but a basic sniff-and-find operation. Of course, there are other risks working The Pile than just the mud, debris and potentially-fatal pockets.

At Ground Zero after 9-11, the 100 search-and-rescue (SAR) dog teams present were exposed to contaminants that resulted in multiple cases of deadly rare cancers and a more than ten percent higher death rate overall. Although researchers have tried to claim K9 SAR teams at Ground Zero don’t seem to be at very great risk, their handlers would beg to differ. And in Oso, Washington, at The Pile, dogs are being hosed off in some sort of attempt at decontamination after spending hours in chemical-laden muck. Propane, gasoline, antifreeze, and any and all chemicals one might expect to find in the average household, garage, or shed, are all loose in the mud. But SAR dogs and their dedicated handlers give more to the cause of rescue than the average citizen tends to realize, and at the mudslide, being forewarned of the inherent dangers stops no one. In what almost immediately ceased to be a live rescue and instead bled seamlessly into a body recovery, scores of searchers from all across the Pacific Northwest have worked to the point of exhaustion to bring what shreds of closure they can to the families and friends of those lost.

A serious risk at disaster sites is working a SAR dog to the point of exhaustion. In fact, the cool, damp air and intermittent drizzles and rainfall in Oso created an environment that is even more challenging than normal for the dogs’ sensitive noses. At a certain point the dogs need more of a break than just short stretches in the rehab tent – typically forty-eight to seventy-two hours off. It is also important to remember that dogs, like people, all have different personalities and abilities. Some dogs need rest sooner than others, and if a SAR dog’s need for time off is ignored, they can lose their ability to smell. Even such simple-seeming factors such as overall hydration and keeping nasal passages clean and properly moisturized are important to their ability to function. There are also prescription medications that can inhibit a dog’s sense of smell including antibiotics such as doxycycline. There are endless nuances to K9 SAR work, and the more that is understood, the more impressive our four-legged heroes become.

Semper Fidelis - USMC

As recovery at The Pile enters week two, the death toll has officially reached thirty. The reality is that SAR dogs signal on whatever they find, meaning parts, not whole bodies, thanks to the blender-like tearing effects of the calamitous mudslide. The constantly-growing list of those lost spares no one. Among those dead are a four-month-old baby girl, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and more than one veteran who survived serving their country only to be wiped out by an act of nature while stateside. Army veteran William “Bill” E. Welsh and Marine veteran Thomas “Thom” Satterlee survived Vietnam, where Satterlee suffered a disabling injury. Satterlee’s granddaughter Delaney and her fiancée Alan Bejvl were staying with him and his wife, Marcy, to plan their August wedding. Delaney and Alan are among those confirmed dead while Marcy’s body is still missing. Stephen “Steve” Hadaway, a technician, was on a service call at the same location as Bill Welsh when the impact hit, and was also a Marine. The Marines lost yet another good man in Lou Vandenburg, who was killed along with his wife, stepson, and his stepson’s wife and children.

“Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me to take my place among them,
In the halls of Valhalla!
Where the brave may live forever.”
Viking Prayer

Early on in the recovery, the brothers of Navy Commander Leon John Regelbrugge found his body alongside his also-deceased dog. They appeared to have been together at the end. His wife Kris’s body was recovered later. The couple left behind five grown children, one of which, a son, lived with his parents and narrowly escaped the mudslide by leaving for work minutes before the house – and his parents, inside – were swept away. Their other two sons followed in their father’s footsteps by joining the Navy while their two daughters are both enrolled in college. Cmdr. Regelbrugge survived thirteen deployments and served as lieutenant commander on the USS Abraham Lincoln for three years before his transfer to Washingon state in 2012. In Everett, Washington, Regelbrugge became a commander and was the officer in charge of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) as well as the Intermediate Maintenance Facility (IMF). According to Cmdr. Regelbrugge’s father, he was about to be promoted to captain.

Missing, and presumed lost, is another PSNS/IMF man: Chief Petty Officer William “Billy” Spillers, a Navy career counselor. Spillers enlisted in 2002 and served on the USS Stout and the USS Momsen before relocating to PSNS. Many across America are familiar with the media footage showing Spillers’ four-year-old son Jacob being rescued from the muck at the start of the rescue efforts. Jacob was airlifted to safety, making his rescue perhaps the brightest spot of the entire operation for SAR workers and local volunteers. At the time of the catastrophe, CPO Spillers was watching television in his home with his children, and, sadly, only Jacob has been found alive. Jacob’s five-year-old sister Kaylee’s body was recovered early on while his thirteen-year-old half-brother Jovon’s body was identified as the recovery enters its second week. Jovon’s biological father, Jose Mangual, is an Army Staff Sergeant in Colorado who flew to Washington to help. CPO Spillers’ cousin, Kevin Ryce, flew to Washington state from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to assist in the recovery effort. At publication, CPO Spillers and his daughter Brooke were still listed among the missing.

Dogs and humans work side-by-side recovering what they can. Although media estimates falter when listing the number of volunteers as anywhere from “a few hundred” to more than seven hundred, the reality is that help comes and goes as people are able. Most K9 SAR teams work on a volunteer basis, and the public might be surprised to find out how few employers are pleased when they have an employee requesting time off for a search. Spending years providing the financial means – to say nothing of the investment in time and emotions - to train a SAR dog is a daunting task, and it takes a unique breed of human to shoulder the task with a smile. Then, when you pass the various tests and officially become a qualified SAR team, the real work begins. Midnight call-outs are to be expected, although in the case of Oso many Washington state SAR teams were put on days-long standby. In Oso, the work has no end yet in sight. This past week dog teams began to take breaks out of necessity even as, behind the scenes, their humans try to find ways to stay on-site as long as possible. Volunteers still have lives at home and must pay bills just like everyone else, and working The Pile does not result in monetary gain. And so the number of searchers fluctuates on a daily basis as volunteers give everything they have to the recovery, their time, energy, emotion, personal finances – and then give a little more. And when they have nothing left, K9 SAR teams take a look around at the destruction surrounding them, and find more to give.

At a Sunday morning sermon, a local pastor spoke of the community’s singular need to rally, to come back from this tragedy of epic proportions. He thanked the SAR volunteers. A charge of fraud is being filed against a man impersonating a K9 SAR team. There are now 30 dead, two of which remain as-yet unidentified. The initial reports of 160 missing have since dwindled to 13 or 20, depending on which official you listen to. Oso has officially been declared a major disaster site and residents are facing months –years – of clean-up and repairs. The SAR dogs will continue working, sniffing their way through the chemical-laced muck and jagged debris as long as their presence is needed. And for the families and friends of those lost, the ghosts of the dead will linger for decades to come.

Leaving town, disaster checkpoints give way to road blocks. The beauty of the towering Whitehorse Mountains retain their ability to awe despite the destruction they now overlook. On a street corner, a local firefighter holds a handmade donation sign for those who have lost everything in the disaster. In a fraternal order parking lot, a group of women wave signs of love and support. In Clear Lake, the local fire house’s sign reads: “Thank you to volunteers who have served over 1,200 pancakes.” By the time you reach the freeway on-ramp in Mount Vernon, only the occasional business on the main street has hoisted a sign declaring support. Finally, miles down the freeway, there is one final farewell to victims of the mudslide on the side of a local farmer’s grain silo. SAR dogs able to head home collapse in exhaustion in their handler’s backseats and crates, and night falls once again back in Oso.

“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies in us while we live.” Norman Cousins

Remembering Oso:

1. Christina Jefferds, 45, Arlington, WA
2. Stephen A. Neal, 55, Darrington, WA
3. Linda L. McPherson, 69, Arlington, WA
4. Kaylee B. Spillers, 5, Arlington, WA
5. William E. Welsh, 66, Arlington, WA
6. Shane M. Ruthven, 41, Arlington, WA
7. Lewis F. Vandenburg, 71, Arlington, WA
8. Summer R. Raffo, 36, Arlington, WA
9. Joseph R. Miller, 47, Arlington, WA
10. Leon John Regelbrugge III, 49, Arlington, WA
11. Alan M. Bejvl, 21, Arlington, WA
12. Julie A. Farnes, 59, Arlington, WA
13. Hunter Ruthven, 6, Arlington, WA
14. Shelley L. Bellomo, 55, Arlington, WA
15. Amanda B. Lennick, 31, Arlington, WA
16. Judee S. Vandenburg, 64, Arlington, WA
17. Sonoah Heustis, 4 months, Arlington, WA
18. Gerald E. Logan, 63, Arlington, WA
19. Brandy L. Wards, 58, Arlington, WA
20. Thom E. Satterlee, 65, Arlington, WA
21. Lon E. Slauson, 60, Arlington, WA
22. Adam Farnes, 23
23. Thomas P. Durnell, 65, Arlington, WA
24. Delaney Webb, 19, Arlington, WA
25. Katie Ruthven, 35, Arlington, WA
26. Jovon E. Manqual, 13, Arlington, WA
27. Gloria J. Halstead, 67, Arlington, WA
28. Jerry L. Halstead, 75, Arlington, WA
29. Unidentified as of 04/04/14
30. Unidentified as of 04/04/14

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