The Five Hardest Minutes Working The Mudslide

Apr 29, 2014

A group of young people from the Washington Conservation Corps worked 14 - 16 hour days trying to recover victims in the Oso mudslide.
A group of young people from the Washington Conservation Corps worked 14 - 16 hour days trying to recover victims in the Oso mudslide.
Credit KUOW Photo/Ashley Ahearn

The Oso mudslide drew hundreds of volunteers to the towns of Arlington and Darrington, Wash.

Mixed in among those responders were 50 young people in the Washington Conservation Corps between the ages of 18 and 25.

The program is run by the state Department of Ecology. Usually these five-person crews do trail maintenance in rural parts of the state, but when duty calls, they shift gears to disaster response.

KUOW’s Ashley Ahearn sat down with Gina Boland, 20, and Morgan Gilchrist, 25 – two members of the WCC who were onsite immediately after the Oso mudslide.

Boland: Being on disaster response, you start listening to yourself more than you normally would. You’re not second-guessing yourself because there’s no time to second-guess yourself. You really have to set everything else aside and become an emergency response worker.

Gilchrist: You grow so much so fast. It’s really hard and it’s cool to look back and say, not only were you able to do this, but you were helping people along the way. For 14 – 16 hours a day for 14 days, all we did was try and bring people home.

Gina Borland and Morgan Gilchrist were part of a crew of mudslide responders from the Washington Conservation Corps.
Gina Borland and Morgan Gilchrist were part of a crew of mudslide responders from the Washington Conservation Corps.
Credit KUOW Photo/Ashley Ahearn

Boland: I was out there and all of a sudden everyone was taking their hard hats off, and at first I was like, "What’s going on?" It was really hard. And I would have to say it’s the hardest thing I had to go through – was those five minutes each time somebody was found.

Gilchrist: Well it doesn’t seem like five minutes. I know we had two recoveries that day and that first one was probably a minute or two, and the second one seemed like an hour. And I’m not sure it was more than five minutes or not, but you stand there and there’s nothing else you can do but think.

And you’re thinking about the people, you’re thinking about their loved ones, and your own family and how it could be them.

We were standing all in a line, all of five or six of us out digging a drain, and it was really a source of comfort to know that each one next to me was someone I knew and worked with, and we’re all the same age roughly, and it was our first time on one of these responses, and we’re all feeling the same way in some sense.

Boland: At one point I know I found a reel of undeveloped photo film (you know, one of those old-school photos that had been cut and placed into a scrapbook), but next to it there’s a pile a children’s clothes, there was a really adorable pink little girl’s jacket — it was another sort of that weird sense of panic — man, there were people here.

This is not just a mud field; these are people’s homes. It just becomes very real at that point.

And it was really sad, but then you just have to get your head back to working. Because, remember, you are there to help accomplish whatever you can in order to help them.

If someone were to come to me and ask me what it’s like to be on the slide, I can tell you all that I can tell you, but you’ll never actually get that sense of what it’s like to be out there.

So all I would recommend is live your life like you have something to fight for. I know society portrays us in this sort of beehive; slow down and take pleasure in the smaller things.