OSO, Wash.– While search and rescue operations continue following the March 22 mudslide on State Route 530, new safety procedures were implemented to protect responders from contracting illness due to exposure to contaminants in the mud.
Toxins from household cleaners, septic systems, vehicles and other factors made several responders ill, causing incident command to implement further safety measures.
On March 29, the Washington Army National Guard's 790th Chemical Company deployed soldiers to the impact area to set up decontamination points on both sides of the debris field, about a mile and a half apart. The "decon" points include a station where rescue workers and search dogs are hosed down, as well as hand-washing stations and separated areas for before and after exposure to the mud.
"When we first got here, they were only using the fire hoses from the truck, and they weren't doing as thorough of a decontamination job as we would," said Army Pfc. Spencer Cutler, of Port Orchard. "We make sure every single piece of contaminant is off of them before they eat or return to where they sleep."
The decontamination isn't just for people and dogs, however, as the Guardsmen have been able to assist with other items. Propane tanks found in debris and vehicles also are treated before they’re removed from the site.
Cutler said he finds comfort in knowing he can help the volunteers searching through debris and assisting response teams, many of whom are former residents of the stricken area.
"Many of the volunteers are people who used to live here, and they can try and find their peace of mind and closure from this without getting ill in the process," Cutler said.
Army Pvt. Ann Marie Gonzalez of Mountlake Terrace had served in the Guard for only two months when the mudslide occurred. She said she was glad when she received the call from her unit to report to the site, because she really wanted to help.
"It's really humbling to see everything -- to experience it and be able to help out," Gonzalez said. "Everyone's been very helpful to the community, but also to the soldiers, so it's been a positive experience."
Many residents searching through debris are looking for missing loved ones and their belongings. Recovery teams have been able to find personal papers, photos, children's toys and even a horse saddle in the mud field. The 790th was able to decontaminate the items and will return them.
Army Spc. Daniel Brown of Anacortes said he has mixed feelings about being on the site. While decontamination is a primary task the soldiers are trained to do, he said, this is a very unfortunate event. "I'm happy to be able to be one of the people out here," Brown said. "I'd feel pretty useless if I wasn't here."
Soldiers with the 790th Chemical Company don't know how long their activation will last, but they realize their contribution to the safety of the rescue and recovery efforts are worth the unknown duration of their mission. Cutler said they're prepared to stay as long as it takes.