● See photos from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.
By Barbara Wood | Special to the Almanac
A Menlo Park firefighter and another member of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District-based search and rescue team are still in Washington state helping search for those still missing from the massive March 22 mudslide that devastated an entire neighborhood in Oso, about 50 miles north of Seattle.
Division Chief Frank Fraone and Rob Patterson, a retired firefighter from Orange County -- both members of the California Task Force 3 National Urban Search and Rescue team -- left on April 3 to join the effort to find those still missing. They expect to head home sometime early the week of April 14.
Division Chief Fraone spoke to the Almanac a week after arriving in Washington, on April 10, about the situation there. He said that two 80-person search and rescue teams are working with 20 Federal Emergency Management Agency dogs trained to find human remains. Some of the dogs, which come from all over the country, are trained to find a scent in water.
Using the dogs and maps of the direction of debris flow to choose search areas, large excavators are digging down as far as 30 feet to haul up debris, which is then searched. "It's a big, big area," Mr. Fraone said. "It is very hard work."
The work, he said, is "tedious. It's wet, it's cold, but they're working through it." Workers stay at a base camp near the slide in tents and travel on a road that was built on an old forest service fire trail, he said.
"They're trying to bring as many remains home to their families as they can," he said.
Division Chief Fraone said the number of missing, originally reported at more than 150, is down to seven or eight as of April 10. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office had reported 36 confirmed fatalities by late afternoon that same day.
Local volunteers and family members are searching for victims as well. "We had two sons who were out there searching for their father from day one, and they found him yesterday," Mr. Fraone said. "They were able to recover him, and the sons were able to spend some time with their father."
"There's still family members out there every day, volunteers out there every day," he said, with as many as 500 people working at a time.
The workers are also trying to return the nearby river to its former course so they can search underwater areas. They are building levees and berms to try to lower the water enough to bring in dogs and excavators. "The water was over our heads," Division Chief Fraone said.
A special unit with underwater sonar has been installed in a sheriff's rescue boat, which is accompanied by an underwater sniffing dog, he said.
Division Chief Fraone praised backing from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District that allowed him and Mr. Patterson to assist the search in Oso. Mr. Patterson is the Incident Support Team leader.
"This wouldn't be possible if not for the support of our fire chief and our board of directors," Division Chief Fraone said.
Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the search and rescue task force has worked on similar incidents in the past, including the 2003 Columbia space shuttle explosion in east Texas. "I was involved with that incident and we located all seven astronauts," Chief Schapelhouman said.
"Large area search is all about methodical search and analytics," he said. "It is possible to find a needle in a hay stack, so to speak, if you can put together all variables and take the time to do it."
Chief Schapelhouman said the search and rescue task force has also helped out locally. They have responded to collapsed buildings after fires to find people, to the San Bruno gas main explosion site, and to East Palo Alto after a small plane crash several years ago,
Task force members also "broke into a bank vault on Woodside Road to rescue a 2-year-old," over a decade ago, he said, adding that none of them served jail time for their part in the incident.
The search and rescue team has been sponsored by the Menlo Park district for more than 20 years, Chief Schapelhouman said.