NAVAL AIR STATION WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. –
“It was a bittersweet experience.”
That feeling was still pervasive this week for AWS2 (NAC/AW) David Scott, one of Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island’s Search and Rescue (SAR) crewman who responded to the devastating mudslide in Snohomish County, Wash., on Saturday, March 22, 2014.
“It was a good feeling to help rescue people caught up in the mudslide,” explained Scott, the crew chief aboard the Navy’s MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter. “But it was frustrating having to pull out while knowing people were still trapped.”
NAS Whidbey Island’s on-call SAR unit along with federal firefighters from Navy Region Northwest Fire & Emergency Services Battalion #3 helped rescue and provide extrication assistance following the massive mudslide. After receiving a request for assistance from the Regional Operations Center Snowpack Operator Saturday morning, NAS Whidbey Island’s SAR unit provided evacuation assistance.
Upon arrival, it was clear the situation demanded more than the typical evacuation as victims were trapped in debris and rubble. Mission Commander, Lt. Cmdr. David Waner, the Helicopter Aircraft Commander, lowered SAR crewmember Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Brent McIntyre, lowered to a house rooftop to talk with a man who captured the crews’ attention.
After McIntyre obtained initial information from the victim, the remaining SAR crew picked up three local civilian firefighters and their scene extraction tools them dropped them off with Chief Naval Aircrewman Helicopter Richard Andraschko to assist with recover efforts.
Waner knew the extraction effort was necessary due to the overall damage. “Due to the ground conditions, we knew we couldn’t land,” he said. “We deployed Chief Andraschko and Petty Officer McIntyre via hoist over what looked to be the remains of the roof of one house which turned out to be two houses, a boat and a car,” he said.
“The extraction of the survivors was extremely difficult,” said Andraschko. “Our primary concern was the safety of the individuals we were getting out. Some of whom were in extreme pain beneath the rubble.”
While Andraschko and McIntyre worked to extract individuals from beneath the house, the two pilots and crew chief began searching to the west and came upon another victim waving them down. “We lowered a rescue basket to extract him when he told us there were two other more seriously injured people down below,” Waner said. “Therefore, we lowered him back down to assist in retrieving the other victims.”
After transporting those victims to a staging area where they were transported for medical assistance, the SAR crew returned to the first house where Andraschko and McIntyre were extracting the first victim, a man who sustained serious injuries. The crew evacuated and flew that individual to Skagit Hospital, then went back to NAS Whidbey Island to refuel.
“My crew chief (Scott) suggested we contact our base firefighters to assist at the scene,” Waner said. “It was a great idea and the firefighters, who just happened to be training, were eager to go and help.”
Once they reached the mudslide area, Navy federal firefighters Michael Wenzel, Ian Walton and Kevin Paggao helped extract a victim out of a tree and brush pile about 30-40 feet high. “At the very least, these guys cut our time on scene in half,” said AWS2 (NAC/AW) Scott.
“The crew had verbal communications only with a female and her location was not really known,” said Navy Region Northwest Battalion Chief Sean Merrill. “The firefighters cut through 7 feet of trees and 8 feet of debris to find a two story house that was reported to have slid about 150 yards,” Merrill noted. “It was covered up to the roof in mud.”
Cutting through about 15-feet of debris, the firefighters finally reached a woman who had been trapped for more than five hours.
The SAR team continued to assist with recovery efforts until about 5 p.m. Lt. Robert Merin, the helicopter co-pilot, was astonished at what he saw. “I was awestruck by the destruction and even more so when we found out how many houses were destroyed,” he said. “It was great being able to help the people that we did, but it was hard knowing that there were others we couldn’t get to.”
“Every aspect of this mission was completed safely and expeditiously,” said Waner. “Our crew worked together flawlessly and the base fire fighters and their gear were an outstanding resource, ready for the challenge.”
NAS Whidbey Island’s SAR maintains a constant state of alert in support of NAS Whidbey Island flight operations and assisted with 17 rescues, searches and medical evaluations in support of the local community in 2013.