There’s a point reached in every search and rescue effort when you realize that you’re no longer searching for survivors, you’re looking for bodies. The Malaysian jet searchers surely reached it long ago, while the rescuers in the tragic Oso mudslide are still grappling with it. Today they began using cadaver-sniffing dogs, which must have been an ominous sign for those on the scene. I know as long as there’s still the slightest chance of finding someone alive they must keep searching. The thought of anyone floating the Pacific or trapped for days in the dark is enough to spur people on beyond the usual bounds of reasonability.
I grappled, and then reached the point of realization on day four of a search for a missing trail worker, ironically also in that same area. I was working on a trail crew on the Darrington district for the U.S. Forest Service where I not only experienced the anguish of not being able to find someone, but also frustration with a disorganized search party, led by an overly bureaucratic Forest Service and local sheriff’s department.
It was my first day out with this particular trail crew. I hadn’t yet had the chance to
meet the victim we would soon frantically be looking for. Her name was Jill; I remember because we yelled it over and over the first night we searched for her. She was only 18 and not very skilled in outdoor survival.
Our assignment that day had been to split into two groups and teach the wilderness rangers about clearing trails while they told us what they knew about wilderness ethics. The group I was in hiked up the Suiattle River in the Glacier Peak Wilderness area, sawing out blown down trees with a cross cut saw as we went. The other group, that included Jill, was to hike up the Sulfur Mountain trail to the snowline, cutting out blow-downs as they went.
That group was led by a gung ho wilderness ranger who was more interested in a race to the top of the mountain for a view than with staying together. They skipped past the logs across the trail and hastily made for the mountaintop. When Jill had to rest, exhausted, she told them, “You guys go on without me,” and they did just that.
The climb up to the view took a couple of hours and Jill probably got hungry or tired of waiting. Deciding to head down to camp, she must have accidentally taken an animal trail that led down toward a steep ravine—or at least that’s what we surmised later. She wasn’t there when her group returned down from their single-minded climb and she never made it back to camp. My group was about to have dinner when they burst into camp and asked if we’d seen Jill. We abandoned our meals and started up the switchbacks yelling her name but heard no reply.
Long story short, we searched for four days, over the same ground, all the while staying well clear of the steep ravine—as per the search leaders’ orders. At the morning meeting on the third day I told the sheriff I had been with a couple of volunteers and their bloodhound called in from Canada the day before. The dog had tried to drag us toward the steep mountainside that led to the ravine above Sulfur Creek, so we should be searching there. Since I was a nobody, the sheriff ignored me and ordered yet another search of the same territory, down the gentler slope to the Suiattle River, that we had covered several times already.
By the fourth day, the wilderness ranger who had abandoned Jill in the first place announced, “I really have the feeling we’re going to find her today.” No matter how I tried to share in his enthusiasm, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “We’re looking for a body now.” Anyone injured out there would have a hard time surviving so many cold nights without help. It was only then that climbers with ropes and gear were called in to check the ravine. Soon we heard the radio call to return to basecamp and abandon the search.
We weren’t told if Jill was alive or dead, just that we should stay in basecamp for “debriefing.” After several hours of waiting, we finally saw a helicopter heading our way, dangling a body bag. Those who knew her burst into tears. The morbid sight was a bit easier for me to take; by then I had known for a while that we were on a body recovery mission. During the debriefing we were told that she died instantly from the fall; I just have to trust that that was true. At least she was found; the news from Oso tells us, “Grim reality: some slide victims may not be found.”
Jill’s father later tried to sue those responsible, but learned that you can’t sue the federal government. In typical Forest Service fashion, the wilderness ranger who left Jill alone on the mountainside was not fired, but promoted to conceal any wrongdoing on his part.