Ed Hrivnak was blown away when he first saw the colossal wave of mud that ravaged the small town of Oso, but it was watching the community pull together that struck him the most.
Hrivnak, an assistant chief for Central Pierce Fire & Rescue, was part of the first helicopter rescue team on scene after the mudslide washed over Highway 530 and killed at least 21 people.
He saw firefighters fighting through concrete-thick muck to reach strangers and neighbors alike. He witnessed survivors setting their own pain aside to help one another. He helped pluck a 4-year-old boy out of the debris, snapping a photograph that went viral. He tried not to think about the magnitude of the disaster and instead focused on the courageous spirit of those present.
It was that spirit, that determination to overcome, that led Hrivnak to join the Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team in 1998. He wanted to volunteer with and for people who demonstrated the values he fought for in the U.S. Air Force until he retired in 2007.
That’s exactly what he did during the Oso mudslide, which he dubbed the hardest mission of his life.
Q: What were you doing when you got the call to respond to the mudslide?
A: We had a scheduled training mission where we were going to do hoist rescue training at the heli-base. We had the helicopter out on the helipad, we had just practiced on the ground, and I literally had just gotten in the seat of the helicopter when the supervisor came out and was waving to us. He told us there was a mudslide on Highway 530, and he asked us to go out and take a look at it.
Q: Can you describe the scene when you first flew overhead?
A: It looked like moonscape. From a distance, there was just mud as far as you could see. I thought, “Holy cow, this is not a mudslide like we’re used to seeing in Washington state; this is a catastrophe.” There was debris and downed power lines and the survivors. Some of them had mud in their eyes, their noses, their mouths and ears. The only way I could see them was when they grabbed onto something because the palm of their hand was clean. That was the only contrast between them and the mud.
Q: You arrived within a half hour of the mudslide – how many people were you able to help those first few hours?
A: In the first two hours, we rescued eight people. Whidbey Island Naval Station, their helicopter showed up and they rescued three people for a total of 11 people. Usually when we go on a mission, we rescue one injured climber. Rescuing 11 is outside the norm.
Q: The photograph you took of the little boy being pulled from the mud has gotten a lot of attention. Tell me about that experience.
A: We were sliding away from a critical patient and were hovering sideways and the aircraft was positioned perfectly so the crew chief saw the boy in the mud. We discussed options and elected to have our rescue technician go in on this sticky, nasty clay mud boulder and deploy a small rope. The whole time, we’re looking for other people because once we have him, where do we go next? Then I realized Jacob is about to come up so I grabbed my phone and put it over my shoulder and snapped three quick blind shots. I realized this thing was bigger than all of us so I snapped an iconic picture of Jacob.
Q: Did you have time to process everything happening around you, or did your training just take over?
A: We were prioritizing what we needed to do, and there was no time for emotion. There are so many things that are going on that you have to be aware of. You have flying debris, trees broken at different angles; you can’t land the helicopter because you’d get stuck. You’re looking for survivors, and you’re trying to figure out how to get them out. People said you must have been scared out of your mind, but we were going through the procedures. I wasn’t nervous at all. We were convinced we were going to get people out of there, and we did.
Q: What moments stand out to you from those first 48 hours of the rescue mission?
A: I saw firefighters in bunker gear, and I realized these are firefighters from this community. They’ve got to absolutely be in shock from their community getting wiped out, but they’re still doing their job. That really struck me. There were other survivors working to help their neighbors. Their houses and neighborhood had been destroyed, but they were doing everything they could. Then one of the survivors took an American flag and stuck it on top of a debris pile that was once a rooftop. That was the one time things got a little emotional for me. It’s like he was saying we’re not giving up no matter what happens.
Q: What’s the first thing you did when you came off shift?
A: The first thing I did when I came home was put my phone in the other room and squeeze my kids really tight. Then we played for a while, and I tried not to think about too much. I hadn’t processed it yet. I didn’t feel like I had time before to process it.