Freedom fighter, firefighter, friend: An Oso resident’s call to serve

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In the midst of an old growth forest about 50 miles northeast of Seattle in Snohomish County, the town of Oso, Washington is a small, close-knit, blue-collar community.

Less than 300 people live in Oso, and none of them could have imagined the impact that the events of the morning of March 22, 2014 would have on their lives; or how it would bring the community together through tragedy.

A nearby hillside collapsed, creating a wall of mud and debris that engulfed a cluster of homes known as Steelhead Haven, dammed a portion of the Stillaguamish River and blocked Washington State Route 530.

Initial reports were that more than 150 men, women and children were missing.

Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan Olson, a maritime enforcement specialist assigned to Coast Guard Port Security Unit 313 and volunteer firefighter in Oso, Wash., surveys the damage area after the deadly Oso mudslide, April 2, 2014. Olson spent more than 260 hours over 24 days assisting with recovery operations after the Oso, Wash., mudslide, the deadliest in the nation's history. (Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan Olson)

Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan Olson, a maritime enforcement specialist assigned to Coast Guard Port Security Unit 313 and volunteer firefighter in Oso, Wash., surveys the damage area after the deadly Oso mudslide, April 2, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan Olson)

“Whatever I did, whatever the professional firefighters and EMS did pales in comparison to the family members of those that were lost did,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan Olson, a maritime enforcement specialist assigned to Coast Guard Port Security Unit 313, an Oso resident and volunteer Oso firefighter. “This is part of Oso. They were out there side by side with professional rescue workers and they would not stop, would not stop, and would not stop. Even after they would find their own family members, they were right back out there the next day, helping dig for everyone else.”

As a qualified Naval enlisted expeditionary warfare specialist, Olson used the skills and proficiencies he attained and honed through military training and deployments to the Middle East as part of PSU 313, to traverse the dangerous and unstable ground. Olson led reconnaissance patrols, setting waypoints that would eventually become the working grid map for the entire western division of the slide area.

“Almost singlehandedly, Petty Officer Olson initiated and developed valuable and crucial networks with local Department of Defense personnel, giving the PSU the ability to train in simulated operational environments doing what is expected of PSU shore security operators,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Ryan Hooper, a member of PSU 313’s operations department. “His dedication, aggressive drive and foresight have enhanced the operational capability of the unit with consistent increases in individual capabilities of personnel and integration of operations department divisions in field training exercises.”

The slide left a field of debris that covered about a square mile, and in some places was more than 30 feet deep. Heavy rainfall combined with floodwaters caused by the backed-up river created an unstable terrain of mud and debris. Massive trees that had once stood tall littered the hillside like broken matchsticks. As recovery operations in the slide area progressed, the official number of missing persons dropped to 43.

“My abilities and training in concepts like land navigation and working in a small team, in combat conditions, absolutely applied in this situation,” said

Olson. “This is the exact same thing as a deployment. It’s like Groundhog Day. You get into the battle rhythm and it’s just like life being forward deployed. The military training came into play time and time and time again.”

Olson assisted in creating landing zones for the search and rescue and military helicopter crews within the slide area, and was eventually attached to the Snohomish County Technical Rescue Team as manpower augmentation, acting as a representative of Fire District 25—the Oso Fire Department. These early days he spent digging with shovels, and sometimes bare hands, in the mud.

Safety concerns limited the abilities of response personnel to enter the slide area.

“The slide created a blender effect of mud, rocks, cars, houses and trees,” said Olson. “Representatives from Washington Task Force 1 compared the recovery effort to the World Trade Center bombing. Only this time, it was logs and mud rather than concrete and steel.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan Olson, a maritime enforcement specialist assigned to Coast Guard Port Security Unit 313, stands with his Oso Fire Department coffee mug outside the PSU facility in Everett, Wash., Aug. 21, 2014. Olson, who is a volunteer Oso firefighter, spent more than260 hours over 24 days assisting with recovery operations after the Oso, Wash., mudslide, the deadliest in the nation's history. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class George Degener)

Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan Olson, a maritime enforcement specialist assigned to Coast Guard Port Security Unit 313, stands with his Oso Fire Department coffee mug outside the PSU facility in Everett, Wash., Aug. 21, 2014. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class George Degener)

After five days of manual digging using shovels and their hands, responders were able to bring in heavy equipment and the response efforts became more organized. The slide area was divided into eastern and western divisions, with multiple zones where equipment operators lifted layers of mud and debris in an attempt to locate and remove human remains.

“This situation is emblematic of what I have come to expect from Petty Officer Olson — a strong man, devoted to his team, committed to his country and consistent in demonstrating that doing the right thing at all times is a core characteristic of his honor, respect and devotion to duty, in and out of uniform,” said Hooper. “I have the greatest admiration for what he did out there. It is a real privilege to work with a man of his caliber and character.”

Olson spent more than 260 hours over 24 days helping affected Oso residents with recovery efforts, alongside community members, firefighters and EMS personnel. Not only did he provide the technical expertise required to safely navigate the recovery area, but he worked closely with the chaplain from Naval Station Everett, Washington, to provide emotional support for those who lost, and in some cases, helped to recover their loved ones.

“This event occurred roughly six miles from my house, and I knew, or was familiar with, a majority of the 43 individuals that lost their lives,” said Olson. “I am honored to have had the privilege to serve my community and help my friends in their time of need. I also need to thank the command and senior leadership at PSU 313, because without their support I would not have been able to help for so long.”

The town of Oso was thrust into the national spotlight when the deadliest landslide event in U.S. history changed the town’s landscape forever. Ryan Olson is one example of the resilience of Oso residents. While the eyes of the Nation may be diverted to other catastrophic events, his actions and those of the professional and volunteer rescuers certainly represent the best of humanity.

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