A rain-soaked hillside collapsed without warning on March 22 near Oso, a tiny town in rural Washington. The slide sent a torrent of mud over the north fork of the Stillaguamish River, and engulfed some three dozen homes in an area of approximately 1 square mile.
Like many people throughout Washington and the rest of the country, Robyn Moug was sickened looking at the TV images and learning that countless people were missing.
While the nation remained fixated on daily news reports from Oso, Moug eventually became part of the story. Within five days of the tragedy, the physical therapist from U.S. HealthWorks in Spokane was summoned by local authorities to be part of a large FEMA-led search-and-rescue effort.
“U.S. HealthWorks was so supportive and wanted me to be part of the search-and-rescue team,” Moug said. “Other physical therapists volunteered to cover for me and everyone in our Spokane center was really encouraging.”
Moug and her dog, Max, were accustomed to search-and-rescue efforts, having traveled to three different states over the past six years and been involved in countless efforts in the Spokane area.
But this one was different.
“It felt very eerie out there in such devastation. You’re dealing with such human loss where many lives were destroyed,” recalls Moug, who spent three full days in Oso. “You’re thinking, ‘I’m searching for someone’s child or their grandmother!’ You’re walking literally on their homes and their possessions. You can never prepare yourself for this type of situation. It’s so intense.”
The hillside that collapsed above Oso was roughly 600 feet high. The slide barreled down the hillside bluff at about 60 miles per hour on a Saturday morning. It sent debris at least 3,700 feet from the base of the hill, clogging up the Stillaguamish River and covering a portion of a state highway.
Moug and Max were part of the painstaking search for the missing that involved hundreds of people and dogs who combed the debris field, at times digging with their hands.
The rescue crews faced extremely dangerous and unpredictable conditions, navigating quicksand-like mud. The threat of potential flash floods or another landslide also loomed over them.
“Considering the conditions, I’m a little surprised we didn’t get hurt, because it was so slippery and the mud was waist deep in some spots,” Moug said. “Sometimes I would step in deep mud and wonder if I was going to be able to get my foot out. Or you would think, ‘what if it starts to slide again?’ But you couldn’t think about it and let fear rise to the surface.”
While Moug stepped gingerly through the mud and debris, Max was a tenaciously determined searcher. Once given his search command, he followed hand signals and directional to search his area. It was too dangerous for Max to wear a search harness or even a collar. Any gear would have the potential to snag on debris if he were to go under in the deep water.
“Max was phenomenal; I was so proud of him,” Moug said. “He is very tough and so agile. I think he only slipped a couple of times. He has incredible focus – he never gives up. All he cares about is his job. Max is a workaholic.”
Max, a 7-year-old border collie-blue heeler mix, was undaunted by the conditions. It was rainy and damp with temperatures in the low 30s. Besides the bone-chilling wet weather and the treacherous muddy hilltops, helicopters were frequently hovering overhead, dump trucks roared closed by, and the occasional tree would fall.
“Max never missed a beat,” said Moug, who has owned Max since he was a puppy. “He has an incredible sense of smell and is able to sort things out. Max was truly amazing throughout the whole ordeal.”
The search effort was an exhausting one. Moug and Max would typically search for two-hour stretches, then come back to a safe area for perhaps 20-30 minutes. At the end of the day, both Robyn and Max went through a de-con process to wash off the toxic mud that was caked all over them.
“I was so tired by the end of each day that I could barely take another step,” recalls Moug.
There were 11 people saved the day of the March 22 slide. However, no other survivors were found.
The dead ranged from a four-month old child to a 91-year-old grandmother whose husband managed to escape the disaster with only injuries. Among the dead were also three generations of one family
Search teams eventually located 41 bodies, while two remained missing heading into early May.
“For me, being part of the search-and-rescue team was a tough, grueling experience that I will never forget,” Moug said. “It was something that can never be actually prepared for in training sessions for myself or my dog. It took an emotional toll, but I do not regret going. As a search and rescue volunteer I believe it is my mission to serve whenever I can.”