After Fatal Mudslide,
Members Aid Recovery Effort
May 20, 2014
|Seattle Local 77 member Tim Harper, right, is lieutenant of Oso Fire District 25, an all-volunteer team. Along with his brother Chief John Willy Harper, center, and Assistant Chief Toby Hyde, the men are instrumental in the relief efforts following the March 22 mudslide in Oso, Wash., that claimed 41 lives
In the days and weeks after March’s tragic and sudden mudslide that devastated the small Washington community of Oso, the nation watched as newscasters and reporters piled up grim figures.
Forty-one dead. Two missing. Nearly 50 homes destroyed. An entire square mile of rural country buried under thick mud and debris.
For Tim Harper, those numbers aren’t statistics. They’re people – sons and daughters, wives and husbands, who he’d known growing up in the logging community in the northern part of the Evergreen State.
“I’d say I knew about 95 percent of the people who lost their lives,” said Harper, 34, a married father of two.
The Seattle Local 77 member has since has devoted countless hours to helping the relief effort. As a volunteer firefighter with Oso Fire District 25, he was on the scene within half an hour after an unstable hill collapsed March 22, channeling mud over the Stillaguamish river, blocking the highway and engulfing a neighborhood below.
|‘It was devastating,’ Local 77 member and volunteer Paul Walsh said of the site. ‘The whole area looked like a war zone.’
“I was out in the field for 10 full days immediately after the mudslide,” said Harper, who is the lieutenant of the volunteer fire squad. His team – which includes Harper’s brother as chief – was instrumental in assessing the situation, helping plan the search and rescue procedures and paving the way for Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Forest Service to assume control of the scene.
Now back at work as an operator foreman and project manager for signatory contractor Burke Electric in Bellevue, Harper continues to participate in nightly strategy meetings with representatives from local and federal relief teams.
In his off hours, he’s back on the site working as a volunteer.
“My history is in logging,” Harper said. “When the accident happened, I called my all my old cutting buddies. I said, ‘Get your saw, and if you don’t have one, come borrow one from me.’”
With uprooted and demolished trees scattered across the site, professional tree-trimming experience was vital. Fellow Local 77 member Paul Walsh – an arborist for the Snohomish County Public Utility District – volunteered with the search and rescue effort days after the event. He was joined by his son, Local 77 lineman John Walsh.
“We were out there with search dogs while clearing debris,” Paul Walsh said. “There were piles of trees, logs and brush.”
|A flag emblazoned with the slogan “Oso Strong” is raised at the disaster site as volunteers and relief workers aid in the recovery
The Walshes also helped dismantle the rooftops of submerged houses to help look for casualties. “It was devastating,” Paul Walsh said. “The whole area looked like a war zone.”
In the aftermath, as the volunteers and recovery teams assist survivors and those who lost family members, Harper’s thoughts turn toward helping families attain some level of closure to begin the healing process, he said.
“I need to make sure the victims are taken care of,” he said. “Part of my project now is to make sure donations are going in to people who need them. I’m working with a handful of people looking to purchase some land in Oso to help build new homes. We found some property about a mile away, and we’re working with the county to try to get about 15 houses built.”
In a small community like Oso, the collective grief in the wake of the tragedy is widespread, Harper said.
“Someday it will probably sink in more for me, with all that’s happened,” he said. “But now I have to be there for my friends and my community. I have to be strong to give them someone to lean on right now.”
Seattle IBEW Locals 77 and 46 have donated money to help the relief effort. Harper expressed additional gratitude to Asplundh employee and volunteer Quin Nations, and to his own employer for its support.
“People in the electrical world – the IBEW, Burke Electric and our suppliers – have been generous,” Harper said. “Which makes me proud because I’m a lifetime employee, I’m not going anywhere. So to see that support is great. You can’t fathom the help you get when you are in the middle of a situation like this and people have your back. That’s the overwhelming part for me.”
The staff at Burke Electric established an online donation page for anyone who would like to contribute to the relief effort. To make a donation, click here.