- Associated Press - Sunday, December 27, 2015

KALAMA, Wash. (AP) - Gary Ripp says he should be dead.

A rain-saturated slope gave way the night of Dec. 8, causing a mudslide that slammed into a backhoe that Ripp, a county road crew operator, was running along Kalama River Road.

The mudslide, which a co-worker later said “sounded like a freight train and a jet taking off at the same time,” overturned the 20-ton machine. It cartwheeled down a road embankment before coming to a stop in a residential yard along the Kalama River, about 80 feet from where it first had been swamped.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘This is it. Oh s - -!’ This is going to hurt bad. … This is the one,” Ripp, 55, recalled. “But I didn’t have a bruise. Usually with this type of thing you don’t get to go home to talk about it.”

Ripp’s survival was the first of a series of triple miracles that occurred in a two-hour span of terror that Tuesday night.

The storm that caused widespread flooding in the Lower Columbia River region was reaching full intensity. Slides were gashing hills in many places, and they were occurring every few hundred feet along lower Kalama River Road, a narrow county road that snakes up a steep-sided canyon that channels the Kalama River.

It was pitch black, and the pounding rain and rumbling slides were deafening.

“You could hear (the slides), but you couldn’t see them. You had an impending sense of danger that something was going to come down and squish you,” recalled Cowlitz County sheriff’s deputy Danny O’Neill, one of the actors in the drama that unfolded in the 700 block of Kalama River Road that night.

About 7:30 p.m., county road crew employees, including Ripp and county road department truck driver Mark LaFave, were clearing slides along a portion of the road just upstream of the Modrow Road Bridge. A homeowner at 725 Kalama River Road, Ron Crevling, asked Ripp if he would place some boulders across his driveway to divert a stream flowing over the road toward his house due to a plugged county culvert.

While Ripp was obliging Crevling, LaFave was parked in a pickup about 50 feet away. Suddenly, he heard a slide roaring out of the steep ravine carved into the slope right above them. He radioed a message that Ripp heard inside the cab of his backhoe. Instantly, Ripp, a 25-year county operator, rotated the boom of his machine to face into the slide. Otherwise the cascade of mud, boulders and trees would have struck the cab broadside and smashed directly into him through the open door. “I was right in the throat of that slide,” he said.

LaFave, who couldn’t see much in the darkness, saw the lights on the boom of the backhoe swing upward, arch over the roadway and disappear over the road embankment. It had been flipped over and flung down the slope onto Crevling’s property.

“It was unbelievable,” LaFave said.

He immediately radioed for help, but wondered if there was any point to it.

“I thought there was no way he survives,” LaFave said of Ripp. “Crap was still coming down off the hill. … I did not believe the outcome was going to be anything but tragic.”

He looked down on Crevling’s parcel. The mud had smashed the shop/garage and shoved it riverward. It filled his swimming pool, engulfed a log truck to the top of its wheels and battered the house. The cab of Ripp’s yellow county backhoe was smashed and the machine was lying in the mud on its side. Its shovel was bent like a badly broken nose.

Then, LaFave saw the reflector buttons on Ripp’s safety vest, and Ripp gave him a thumb’s up sign.

He’d pulled himself through a broken window of the cab. When he first jumped off the machine, he sank in mud up to his waist. He hoisted himself onto the backhoe’s rubber wheel and leaped onto a log, landing chest-first. From there, he walked on the log and eventually back out to the road to meet LaFave.

“If it hadn’t been for Mark, I wouldn’t have swung the cab around in time,” Ripp said of the maneuver he credits with saving his life.

Their night was far from over, though.

More landslides

Cowlitz County sheriff’s deputies Danny O’Neill and Landen Jones had been in the area controlling traffic and dodging slides themselves. At one point, O’Neill and his patrol car were trapped between two slides.

Boulders up to seven feet wide sluiced past them. Water cascading off the hillslopes formed waterfalls that spouted out as far as the road’s centerline, O’Neill said.

They were dispatched to the scene of Ripp’s mishap. When they saw Ripp was safe, they told residents in the area to evacuate. The slide still was moving and the valley growled with the sound of other landslides.

But Ripp told them Crevling, the homeowner who was standing in his driveway when the slide hit, was missing. Crevling’s home still was standing, so O’Neill and Jones focused their search on his crushed shop/garage.

Approaching it from the front, or road side of the shop, Jones briefly got mired in waist-deep mud. The deputies circled to the back side, which faces the river. Then they heard a frightening roar.

“It’s dark and pouring rain and then we hear a tremendous slide, but can’t see it,” said O’Neill, 66. “You could hear boulders tumbling and smashing. We knew it was coming from the other side of the river. It was large and deafening and we hear it hit the water. The Kalama is a torrent and it (the slide) causes a wave that crosses the river and swamps Landon and me.”

How they weren’t swept away or buried by debris still is mystifying. But they weren’t hurt. The only damage was to O’Neill’s radio.

As they ran uphill to escape, they heard a yell for help. It was Crevling, trapped in his shop, but O’Neill and Jones couldn’t see him.

They radioed for help, but no emergency vehicles or personnel could respond. Then Ripp and LaFave reappeared after taking a respite at a county staging area at Norris Pit Road. They brought road foreman Todd Becker, operator Carl Davis, Longview-area road supervisor Justin Hudek and equipment operator Keith Madison with them to help the deputies free Crevling.

Leaving two members of the road crew to monitor the slide, the group returned to the damaged shop. O’Neill broke a window and looked inside. The odor of gasoline was nauseating. In the beam of flashlights, the searchers could see vehicles and equipment overturned and flung helter-skelter. Even in the chaos, they spotted Crevling’s hand.

“Everything someone has in a garage was pushed up against him,” Ripp said.

Everyone was reluctant to enter a building in such a dangerous condition, but LaFave finally volunteered and squeezed in through a window.

“We had no plan,” he said. “It just kind of evolved.”

Piece by piece, he pulled tools, gas cans and other equipment away from Crevling. It was a slow process. Removing anything tightly wedged could cause the whole mass of debris to shift and crush them both. At one point, Crevling jarred a compressor they’d agreed looked dangerous to move. It came loose, but nothing happened.

Crevling was hypothermic and covered in mud, but he was calm and asked how his place had fared, LaFave remembers.

“I was honest with him. I told him it’s all toast.”

While LaFave worked and handed debris out to O’Neill and Ripp, deputy Jones and other members of the road crew tried to buttress the building using boards scattered around. And they kept an eye on the river, a torrent flowing just a few feet away, and the slide that had slashed the bank on the opposite side.

Slowly, LaFave pulled Crevling out of the debris and toward the window, first getting him to sit up, then stand in a crouch position. Finally, Ripp and O’Neill hoisted Crevling through the window. They flung his arms on their shoulders and carried him to safety with the other road crew members assisting. He went to the hospital but was released with just a black eye the next day, when he came to the county’s Kalama road shop to thank the road crew for saving him, Ripp said.

The Daily News was unable to reach Crevling.

None of the participants of this two-hour drama wants to be called a hero.

“We just did what we had to do. We just knew we had to help and do something” to rescue Crevling, said LaFave, 57.

O’Neill called the road crew heroic, noting especially that Ripp returned to the scene after his own brush with death.

“Courage is facing danger when you’re afraid,” said O’Neill, who in the line of duty has been shot at and worked in the shadow of the ominously bulging Mount St. Helens in 1980.

“There wasn’t a man out there that didn’t feel an immediate threat. If anything went wrong, we would all lose our lives. We got lucky and things worked out well and we were able to get back downriver.”


Information from: The Daily News, https://www.tdn.com

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