OSO, Wash. – You can’t prepare for this emotionally, said Tech. Sgt. Timothy Sudduth.
Sudduth is part of the Colorado Air National Guard’s Fatality Search and Recovery Team from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo. His team was called to assist in the aftermath of the March 22 mudslide in Oso, Wash.
The team’s mission was to help extract, recover, and process human remains for the medical examiner to identify and eventually return to families.
Joining the FSRT were two chaplains, a liaison officer and an administrative Airman. However, regardless of their job title, all 16 participated directly in human remain recovery operations.
The mile-long devastation trail – piles and piles of rubble – required the Airmen to operate out of two discrete sites; one located on nearby private property, the other a large, nondescript tent set apart from the slide area. But these recovery sites were different from other military encampments. There were no proud banners declaring the area. Missing were the sometimes bold unit signs created by service members marking their territory – a tradition hailing from Roman times. Instead, the air at these sites was heavy with a reverence that springs from a sadder, deeper level of esprit de corps.
According to Sudduth, those tasked to search for casualties used cadaver-sniffing dogs to identify possible remains buried in the slide. If one dog alerted on possible remains, another dog was brought in to confirm the alert. If the second dog alerted in the same area, a third dog was brought over to check the findings of the first and second dogs.
Once remains were uncovered, the deceased were given honors where they lay. Everyone stopped what they were doing and bestowed a moment of silence, said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Elizabeth Kelpis, the Colorado FSRT liaison officer.
The remains were then transported to the medical examiner’s on-site processing areas, where FSRT members also helped photograph and catalogue the remains.
“I saw the picture in the paper with all the faces of the victims. I didn’t even look at that,” Sudduth said, noting his job was really to help the survivors get closure. “If I think about the faces, it’s too much.”
“What helps people deal with the emotions and the feelings as they come up is recognizing the value of what they are doing,” said Army Maj. Kevin Parker, 96th Troop Command Brigade chaplain. “A lot of what I have heard out on the mud pile is people reminding each other that this is important work.”
“Closure, closure, closure,” Sudduth said. “What I do is to help people get closure so they can move on. Knowing that helps get me through the day.”
The Colorado National Guard Fatality Search and Recovery Team supplemented recovery operations from the 141st Force Support Squadron’s FSRT from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., March 30 to April 10.
“It was such a tough assignment, but such an honorable mission,” said Kelpis, who noted that the team also helped recover personal effects, such as photo albums and other meaningful, personal keepsakes, from the rubble. “We’re so glad we did that for the survivors. It was such a small, tight community, and we felt part of that community. Every team member wanted to stay until every victim was accounted for.”
According to the official report available at InciWeb, as of April 14, seven people were still listed as missing.