01 April, 2014

On-the-scene report from Oso, Washington mudslide

Snohomish County Fire District 19’s two Neoteric hovercraft have been deployed in the rescue and recovery efforts at the Oso, Washington mudslide since the initial alarm and will remain active during the coming days as water levels lower and more area becomes available to search.

Those of us following the tragedy on the news cannot even begin to grasp the vast wasteland created by the mudslide. Trent Nunemaker, President of Fire District 19 and a primary first responder in the effort, has reported in from the scene, giving us a better understanding of the devastation created by one of the worst landslides in U.S. history.

In 2011, Trent Nunemaker (right) and Assistant Fire Chief Jeremy Swearengin (left) were trained to pilot Fire District 19’s Neoteric rescue hovercraft by Chris Fitzgerald (center) at Hovercraft Training Centers.
The number of confirmed fatalities has now reached 24, with 22 still missing. One of the rescuers on Trent’s team was personally affected, losing family members when his home was swept away by the slide. “Fortunately,” Trent says, “the amount of support we have received from the local community and from around the nation has been overwhelming.”

Trent describes the scene: “The only way I can describe the debris field is that it looks as though a bomb has gone off. Most first responders have seen the damage done when a car hits a tree at high speed. Try to imagine what would happen if a forest of trees hit a neighborhood at 100 mph. Everything from vehicles to homes have been completely destroyed and spread across a half mile debris field.

Rescuers have been hampered by rain all week and are contending with treacherous conditions such as sewage, household chemicals and gasoline and propane containers. When first responders and search dogs leave the site, they must be hosed down by hazardous materials crews. As an on-site spokesman said, “We're worried about dysentery, we're worried about tetanus, we're worried about contamination.”

Hovercraft give first responders added safety in rescue operations
by keeping them above contaminated mud and flood waters.
Trent goes on to explain the unequaled utility of rescue hovercraft in such situations: “The slide area contains several hazardous environments - impenetrable debris fields, large clay islands, and a debris field that is completely flooded by the backed-up Stillaguamish River. Initially the river was completely blocked by the slide, which caused a large portion of the debris field to flood. But our hovercraft can navigate through floating debris and logs, so we’re able to cross the flooded valley and access the debris field. Unfortunately, much of the debris contains nails and other sharp building hardware which tend to catch on the skirts of the hovercraft. We've overcome this by hovering low in the water and pushing such debris aside with the fiberglass body of the craft."

He adds, "These Neoteric craft are able to quickly and safely access almost any environment.

One of Fire District 19's Neoteric hovercraft carries rescuers safely
through shallow flood waters strewn with logs and debris.
Besides their search and rescue role, hovercraft serve additional functions in disaster scenarios like this one. Trent elaborates, “We're also using the hovercraft to transport and retrieve personnel and rescue equipment to and from the debris field and other areas that are hard to access by any other means. They’re an excellent platform to rapidly reach our teams working out of smaller unpowered inflatables which have incorporated search dogs.

He continues, “During one day’s search operations I was assigned Safety Officer for water operations and used one of the hovercraft to keep track of all the watercraft operating in the debris field. The hovercraft was very well-suited for this job as it allowed me to quickly reach crews in the field to assist in the event of an emergency.”

A third Neoteric hovercraft at the scene, owned by Snohomish County Search and Rescue, transports drinking water.
"We're constantly coming up with new uses for our hovercraft," says Trent. "Recently we've worked on techniques to lower our craft by ropes down steep embankments. This has proven to be very successful and allows us to take advantage of more launch sites. Our hovercraft have become a critical tool in our swiftwater rescue team’s operations. Every second counts when it comes to water emergencies and the hovercraft allow us to access all our district’s waterways quickly and safely."

The Washington mudslide is not the first time the hovercraft have been a critical tool for Snohomish County. In May of last year, the craft were called in when a portion of an Interstate 5 bridge collapsed, dropping vehicles and passengers into the Skagit River 60 miles north of Seattle.

The important role of hovercraft in search and rescue operations like these helps us understand that these unusual craft have a far greater purpose than simply serving as recreational vehicles or golf carts. Hovercraft are critical rescue equipment that, time and time again, save lives and protect first responders in dire situations where no other vehicles can perform.

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