We train a lot, and helping people is something I’ve always wanted to do. Now, we’re getting to do it. —Liz Baumgartner
WEST JORDAN — Two dogs and their handlers from Salt Lake Urban Search & Rescue’s Utah Task Force 1 have been called to help rescuers in the Washington state mudslide.
The number of confirmed deaths rose to 30 Thursday, with 15 people still missing. Recovery crews are still searching for more bodies in the March 22 landslide that crushed the community of Oso, about 55 miles north of Seattle.
Liz Baumgartner and her cadaver dog Pax, along with Jon Cain and his canine partner Daisy, received a call to go to Washington Wednesday night.
“We train a lot,” said Baumgartner, “and helping people is something I’ve always wanted to do. Now, we’re getting to do it.”
The four of them are members a search and rescue team made up of firefighters and volunteers from the Unified Fire Authority, Salt Lake City Fire Department and Park City Fire Department.
Salt Lake Urban Search & Rescue has 210 members, split into four task force teams. They constantly train for emergencies and are ready to go at a moment’s notice. They are part of the National Urban Search and Rescue Response system and can be deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help state and local governments rescue victims in structural collapses and other disasters.
The call for their assistance shows how the Washington tragedy has shifted from a search mission to a recovery operation.
"I feel sorry for the families,” Cain said. “This is important work.”
"It's sad, and we hope we can not only give some closure to people, but also help people that are already up there working so hard and they're exhausted,” Baumgartner said. “We want to help them."
Their job is to search for bodies still trapped under all that mud. It’s something they train for but is difficult to prepare for.
"You know, I don't know that you can (prepare),” Cain said. “I guess you prepare yourself mentally, or you think you prepare yourself mentally, but there's no way to (say), 'I can do this now that I’m ready.' It's just something you have to experience.”
On a big callout, about 80 will go, but, for this mission, only the dogs and their handlers are needed.
Cain and Daisy did the same job in Afghanistan for the military, so they know what to do.
“We were in Afghanistan together in 2010 and 2011, and then my contract ended, so I came home,” said Cain. “Daisy still had another year on that contract, but when the Human Remains contract ended with the Army, I heard about it, and I bought her. So now we’re together again doing the same thing here.”
The team had a morning flight out of Salt Lake City to Seattle. Both dogs are allowed in the cabin and sit under the seat in front of their handlers.
"I get a little anxious before we go, but then once we get there, I know the people already in place really take good care of us,” said Baumgartner, “This is Pax’s first deployment, so now we’re going to get to put all that training to good use.”
For the dogs, the task is just one big game. Even though they will be sniffing for bodies, they’re really doing it for the treats they get.
“They don't think of what they're searching for,” Cain said. “They're doing it for the toy. All she wants to do is find it and tug."
"They love it,” Baumgarther said. “It's fun — big rewards for them and it's all a game. He gets a tennis ball, that's his reward, and who wouldn't work for a tennis ball, right?"
Those kinds of fun and games help take the edge off the assignment for the human members of this team.
"We'll stay there as long as it takes,” said Cain, “until the job is done.”
Task Force 1 was called out to help in September when a massive flood wiped out homes, roads and towns in Colorado. They were also called for search and rescue operations after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc