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Mission Aircrew Responds to Oso Landslide

April 19, 2014

Mudslides are a common occurrence in northwest Washington state, but this kind of devastation had the power to steal Maj. Khoi Duong's breath. As he would later describe the scene to a colleague, it was if God had scooped up all the dirt from a big, black hole and scattered it in a 1-square-mile area. That

"It wasn't a bunch of dirt piled up somewhere, it was dirt piled up over the tops of people and not by a couple of inches, but by tens of feet."
- Lt. Col. Pat Courtney
Seattle Composite Squadron

was the magnitude of the damage from the massive March 22 mudslide that swiftly gobbled up homes and people, resulting in a pile of rubble and debris that dammed the north fork of the Stillaguamish River and blocked State Route 530.

Image: Ted S. Warren

Duong was on his way to an aerial photography course that when he got the call to grab his flight gear. He'd seen the previous day's news about a mudslide between Oso and Darrington, but even so he was unprepared for what he saw from 5,000 feet in the air.

"I'm looking down and thinking to myself, 'Oh my God...,' " Duong said, "I'd never seen anything like that before. To see the slide from that vantage point was just breathtaking".

The Washington Wing was mobilized by the Washington State Department of Transportation through the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center just hours after the disaster, which claimed more than 40 lives. Wing members like Duong, who served as mission scanner through the first full search day, provided support to first responders on the ground and in the air during the early days of the search for survivors. Civil Air Patrol's cellular forensics team was also tapped to help find people.

For two days, CAP members provided High-Bird communications relay for air and ground rescue teams working in the slide area, said Lt. Col. John Reno, director of emergency services for Washington Wing. They also took aerial photos to monitor any further movement in the slide area and provided air traffic advisories for airplanes and helicopters working in the vicinity. CAP made seven flights over the area, each averaging three to four hours.

Image: Ted S. Warren

In addition, Maj. Justin Ogden and Col. Brian Ready, CAP's cellphone forensics experts, called and sent text messages to 16 people believed to be caught in the slide debris. They were able to determine that half of those they called weren't in the slide.

"People started calling us back or writing us back on text messages and we were able to determine they were not in the search area," Ogden said.

"There were some other phones that we could either say they were likely involved in the mudslide, or they definitely were in the area of the mudslide at the at the time the event happened. That's as far as we were able to take it. We were never able to tell them a specific portion of the mudslide to search."

Lt. Col. Patrick Courtney of the Seattle Composite Squadron worked as mission pilot during the search efforts. Like Duong, he was struck by the magnitude of the damage. "What we saw was where the disaster really struck, which was the other side of the river where all the homes were," Courtney said. "It brought a solemn reality to how devastating this thing really was."

Courtney, a CAP member since 2001, said he has previously worked floods, which cause property loss and displacement, but the slide far and away one of the most tragic events he'd ever participated in. "It wasn't just a bunch of dirt piled up somewhere, it was dirt piled up over the tops of people and not by a couple of inches, but by tens of feet," he said.

The slide affected every community in Washington, Courtney said, as people pitched in to do whatever they could to help, including collecting donations at local church services during the recovery effort. Duong said he was grateful to be able to make a contribution. "What I saw reinforced everything I've done in CAP to this point," he said. "you train to serve your community and to put that training to use - albeit in a small way - and it gives you a good feeling inside."

Article by Markeshia Ricks for Volunteer Now, a CAP national publication.

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