Never stop digging. A firefighter story from ‘the pile’

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Searchers: ‘We won’t stop digging’
By Jake Whittenberg

The mud and debris is like spaghetti.
It’s the only way for Eric Finzimer to describe it.
“You know, when you have sort of, cooked spaghetti and you clump sauce on it. There are all these empty spaces,” he says. “That’s what it’s like.”
The seemingly endless mix of liquefied earth, trees, cars and homes is where Finzimer and his fellow fire fighters now spend their days. They trudge through several feet of soft mud, hoping to find survivors.
After the hillside collapsed in a massive landslide near Darrington Washington, few have been found alive. The estimated square mile of torn earth and debris blanket over the neighborhoods tucked along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
“It’s like a moonscape, it’s not real,” says Jeff McClelland. “You just can’t believe it.” But the search has been around the clock since the first responders arrived.
Tuesday before noon, a pile of debris was turned over by one of the local volunteers from Darrington, digging side by side with the fire fighters. Under the trees, and mud, the man found a body.
It was his own father.
“We just pulled the gentleman up, and put him in the bag. It’s all we could do,” McClelland says.
Then the man sat on a tree limb, amidst the moonscape, in silence. No tears.
McClelland was the one who cried.

First Call

The first tone sounded around 10:50am Saturday morning.
Volunteers with Snohomish County Fire District 24 halted their typical weekend activities to respond. The call went out as single engine response; possible barn roof on highway 530, 10 miles south of Darrington.
Jeff McClelland, and his wife Jan, both 57, are volunteers fire fighters among the first to the slide within 9 minutes. A good response time for a volunteer department in rural Snohomish County.
This was no barn door. It was a house, on a slab of mud.
“It just seemed to go on forever,” says Jan. “This was too big.”
Then reality set in. This was Steelhead Drive.
The collection of neighborhoods on Steelhead Drive, nestled along the river was known to have landslides. After all, there was a slide in 2006. Some homes were damaged but nothing like this.
Worst of all, it was Saturday.
“We knew there would be families home on the weekend. There is no school, people are at home,” says Jan.
There was nothing to do but call for help, and start digging.

Baby’s Room

Not long after the slide, the McClelland’s made a few rescues.
They tied themselves to 650 feet of rope, secured it to a tree and were able to lay debris over the mud for footing and step out to a man who was hypothermic and screaming for help. His right arm was mangled and eventually was airlifted by a helicopter.
But the rescues stopped. No more signs of life since Saturday.
12 of the Darrington Fire District’s 27 volunteers were taking turns up on the slide. Many refused to come down off the trail of debris and mud, something most of the searchers called ‘the pile’.
“We cleared away twelve feet of mud. Then there would be drywall. Then, steel beams. And you couldn’t go any farther,” she says. “But you can’t stop there because you think someone might be in there.”
When the searchers uncovered personal belongings, they started a collection. Photographs, scrapbooks, yearbooks and mementos all went in a box. The hope was that the rightful owners could have them back. If they were alive.
On Sunday, they uncovered what appeared to be a nursery. Children’s blankets and toys were separated from the tiny clothing caked with foul smelling mud.
“You hoped that the baby was not there at the time, that’s all you could hope,” says Jan. Her eyes well up with tears.
Jeff remembers finding a children’s book covered in mud, “Three Lost Orphan Kittens,” titled “The world is a beautiful place.”
“All I could do was think, It really is a beautiful place,” says Jan.

Never Stop Searching

The McClelland’s became members of the community in 2008 and started a small goat farm on 80 acres outside the city limits of the town of 1,300. E Everyone knows everyone in Darrington. When their fire fighter pagers go off, chances are they are responding to help someone they know, or have seen around town.
The affects of the landslide are personal.
District 24 only gets about 400 calls per year. Most all of them are medical calls.
The landslide is an ultimate test.
“We are not trained for this,” says Jeff.
With the amount of mud, and the number of missing people, Finzimer fears they won’t find everyone. Logic suggests that will probably be the case. But when you’re a fire fighter or a paramedic, that kind of thinking is illogical.
“If there was just one person still missing, we wouldn’t stop looking,” he says.
Finzimer and the McClelland’s had not been off the pile in the daylight for five days when they were able to take a time out to tell their story to cameras, and reporters, camped out in Darrington and hungry for information.
The three cry together, but try to stay strong for everyone watching and hanging on every word. They’ve lost all concept of time.
“I’m sorry,” says Finzimer, wiping away a tear. “We haven’t had a chance to let loose.”
At that moment, the world was watching and listening to their stories from the landslide. They know this is only the start of things to come. The ‘pile’ changes everything.
“This moved so much,” Jan says. “Half of a mountain fell down.”

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