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On Saturday, March 22, a mile-wide mudflow devastated Oso, Wash., 55 miles north of Seattle. The massive damage and mounting casualties have rocked the small community between Arlington and Darrington.

Search Crews Struggle To Define Success In Mudslide Debris

KUOW Photo/Patricia Murphy
Lieutenant Richard Burke of the Bellevue Fire Department has been out searching in the mudslide debris near Oso, Wash.

As of Wednesday morning, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s office has confirmed that 29 people have died in the Oso landslide. Hopes of finding survivors are dwindling.

That’s taking a toll on the families and the search crews, some who have been out there since the very beginning, doing intense physical and emotional work. Rescue operations managers are very conscious about giving those crews a break, letting them rotate in and out so they can rest and recharge.

The devastation in the small community has caught the attention of other first responders around the country. Fire Captain Ronald Klamecki led a landslide recovery in a small town in California several years ago. He said he’s been watching as the Oso landslide crews struggle in the mud and debris.

“People in the rescue world, they take a burden because they go there to make an impact and they try to be successful and give it their all and sometimes you just don’t get to that point,” Klamecki said.

Klamecki also helped in New York after 9/11. He said that in the 10 days he was there, his small group – one of many – found only two victims. He said it’s hard because he wanted so badly to help the families.

Lieutenant Richard Burke of the Bellevue Fire Department is one of those people who has been in the slide zone near Oso searching for days. 

“For me, success is the end of the day when we arrive back at the Oso Fire Department and those family members walk up and I see them shake somebody’s hand or give them a hug and they say thank you,” Burke said. “We’re here just to support and help this community. But they’re stronger than me, than probably all of us.”

When asked how he shifts from a rescue to a recovery operation, he said he doesn’t, really. He just keeps working.

Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012