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Redmond responders lend a hand at Oso, recognized by city

City of Redmond Mayor John Marchione, left, and Redmond Fire Department Chief Tommy Smith (next to mayor) honor five of the seven responders at the June 3 Redmond City Council meeting. - Courtesy of City of Redmond
City of Redmond Mayor John Marchione, left, and Redmond Fire Department Chief Tommy Smith (next to mayor) honor five of the seven responders at the June 3 Redmond City Council meeting.
— image credit: Courtesy of City of Redmond

On June 3, a group of firefighters and paramedics with the Redmond Fire Department (RFD) were recognized at the June 3 City Council meeting for their response to the Oso mudslide disaster in March and April.

A total of seven Redmond firefighters and paramedics deployed after a mudslide hit the towns of Oso and Darrington on March 22.

Six of the seven responders were dispatched with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue Team Task Force 1 (USAR-TF-1) in King County. These responders — Capt. Don Sanderson, firefighter and paramedic Lafond Davis, Capt. James Swift, Lt. Drew Cassady, Lt. Ralph Kratz and firefighter and paramedic Skip Boylan — worked at the disaster site and were assigned duties that supported the search efforts during their deployments, providing disaster leadership and medical support.

In addition to these six, RFD firefighter Ernie Zeller also responded as a member of the Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team (HRT). He rescued seven people during the initial response and rescue efforts.

The RFD responders were deployed in two separate rotations. The first rotation was March 24. The second rotation came on April 4. Both rotations were about two weeks long.

CORRIDOR OF HONOR

Cassady, who was part of the second rotation, participated in high-density secondary searches, which covered areas between the road and the Stillaguamish River. He said they worked on the Darrington side of the slide and used search dogs and heavy equipment to sift through clay, mud and debris that was — in some places — more than 30 feet deep.

Whenever searchers came across human remains, Cassady said there was a very specific way they were handled. With all the search-and-rescue workers and machinery, things often got chaotic. So when human remains were found, they would blast an air horn and all work would stop. Cassady said people would remain silent as the National Guard brought the fallen off the field — forming a human chain, or a “corridor of honor,” to carry the remains out to the road to be dealt with properly.

“No matter where you were…everybody stopped, removed their helmets and paid honor,” Cassady said.

He said because he was on the second rotation, he understood that anyone they would find would not be alive. After 21 years of service with RFD, Cassady said he has a job that requires him to risk his life to save a savable life. But when that is not possible, his duty is to provide closure for the families of those who have died.

Cassady said this was what he would be thinking about at 11 a.m., soaking wet in a seemingly endless field of mud, clay and debris. He said if it were his family member out there, he would want someone to find them.

Sanderson added that while they were in Darrington due to unfortunate circumstances, he is thankful he was able to offer his skills to provide people closure.

LONG DAYS

The search-and-workers worked long days, which usually lasted more than 12 hours.

Sanderson, who worked as a rescue team manager, said they would usually wake up around 5:30 a.m., go to breakfast from 6-7 a.m. and attend a team meeting at 7 a.m. before heading out to search. They would usually stop around 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., but searchers still had to go through a decontamination process after this before returning to camp.

In addition to this, Sanderson said as a manager, he had 9 p.m. meetings with other managers to debrief, discuss what went well, what they needed to improve on and what they would do the next day. He was usually in bed by 11 p.m. or midnight.

Because he was in a managerial position, Sanderson said he wasn’t part of the search but oversaw rescue operations. Because of this, he wasn’t as physically taxed as Cassady and the other search-and-rescue workers. But that didn’t mean Sanderson wasn’t tired at the end of the day.

“It was very challenging, very taxing…mentally taxing,” he said about his job.

HIGHLY SKILLED PROFESSIONALS CLOSE TO HOME

During their recognition last week, Redmond Fire Chief Tommy Smith applauded the work of the first responders.

“These experienced first responders have acquired a vast amount of experience working at many types of disasters which include the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks and the Atlanta Olympic Games bombings,” he said. “The men and women who deploy at a moment’s notice sacrifice time with their own families and local needs to be a part of the international disaster response community.”

He said these experiences bring a high level of expertise and competencies to the fire department when disasters like the Oso slide occur locally.

“I’m extremely proud of the USAR team members and the dedication they contribute to training and responding outside their regular duties in the fire department,” Smith said.

Redmond Mayor John Marchione is equally proud.

“As a city, we value service to the community,” he said. “When a neighboring community was in need, we were happy to be able to provide assistance to the towns of Oso and Darrington.”

Marchione added that having these members here within the City of Redmond provides a level of comfort knowing they have well-trained individuals capable of handling these types of major incidents with the “utmost professionalism.”

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