One of the first pictures from the Oso landslide was of a muddied state trooper emerging from the disaster zone just after helping to rescue a critically injured baby.
That trooper was 27-year-old Rocky Oliphant. For the first time, he’s telling his story publicly.
First trooper on the scene
On Saturday morning, Trooper Oliphant was watching for speeders on Interstate 5 just north of the Highway 530 exit. Then a call came across his radio.
“Initially put out the call as a possible flood with a barn roof in the road,” he recalls.
Oliphant was about 20 miles away. He responded. As he got closer more information came in. It was a mudslide.
He remembers coming around a corner.
“There’s basically no words to describe the amount of devastation," says Oliphant. "Houses in the road, roof in the road, random debris everywhere.”
Oliphant was the first trooper on the scene. He says he saw group of people standing at the edge of the destruction. They told him they were hearing a faint voice calling for help. Several of them started to wade into the mud and debris.
But Oliphant noticed there was a downed power line.
“I tried to get them to stop because I didn’t know if the wire was live and it was going into the slide and I didn’t want to get any more people hurt.”
"They could hear a baby screaming"
The men ignored his request to wait, but soon were calling back to him.
“When they made it about halfway out they advised that they could hear a baby screaming and a mom calling for help.”
About then Trooper Oliphant says he got word the power had been shut off. So he waded in too, trying to maneuver in several feet of mud and debris.
“The picture of me shows mud almost up to my waist because a couple of times I fell through and couldn’t even feel the ground below.”
By then the civilian rescuers had reached the mother and baby. Trooper Oliphant started to construct a makeshift walkway.
“I was taking roofing, two by fours, plywood, just about anything I could find to make a path so they could get back safely.”
Soon one of the rescuers emerged with the baby wrapped in a blanket. Nearby the infant’s mother was trapped with possible broken legs. She was also rescued.
Both mother and baby were transported to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The hospital reports the infant boy is critical, but improving. His mother is in satisfactory condition.
"It’s an incredibly helpless feeling"
Governor Jay Inslee has praised Trooper Oliphant’s bravery, but the young trooper says he felt something else that day.
“It’s an incredibly helpless feeling for a police officer to roll up on something like that,” he says.
Oliphant grew up in nearby Marysville. He’s patrolled the area where the slide happened for most of his seven years with the State Patrol. He still can’t believe what’s happened to this tight knit community.
“It’s horrifying is what it is.”
Oliphant has been back to the scene several times to help enforce the road closure. He says it’s been emotional.
“I’ve been able to talk to a lot of the people, I’ve seen a lot of tears, I’ve come close to tears myself just talking to them.”
Oliphant finally got a day off to go home and see his own kids. But he can’t stop thinking about the lives lost and the families destroyed by this disaster.
And there’s something else. Oliphant has thought a lot about the rescuers who ignored his request to wait until they were sure the downed power line wasn’t live.
He says he has nothing but respect for them.