LARCH MOUNTAIN — As dozens lay buried under the massive landslide near Oso last month, 17 inmates from Larch Corrections Center rolled up to the scene and set up camp to take care of the rescue crews.
Over the years, the men have witnessed their share of disasters, as members of a wildland firefighting crew that works with the Department of Natural Resources. But never before had they seen such devastation, said Michael Skinner, a 33-year-old inmate from Kitsap County.
"I doubt any of us knew what to expect," Skinner said. "I didn't. So, I just went in there with the mind frame of 'Be as courteous as possible and do as much as I could for anyone that needed help.'??"
Skinner and the others arrived March 27, five days after the titanic wall of mud plowed over state Route 530, leaving dozens missing. As of Friday, rescue crews had recovered and identified 36 bodies from the scene, and seven people were still missing.
The inmates stayed there more than two weeks, working 16 hours a day cooking hot meals, serving coffee and cleaning up after the fatigued crews. Meanwhile, the men found themselves spending much of their time just being there when the rescue crews needed someone to talk to.
"There was a guy talking about a vehicle being ripped in three pieces, various things about the pressure, just finding some bodies, but mainly body parts," Skinner said Friday at the corrections center, 5 miles east of Hockinson. "I don't know how they deal with that, but you know I just tried to listen and show them I was listening."
Before the inmates arrived, the rescue crews had been fueling up on cold ready-to-eat meals. Soon, they would be treated to fresh food for each meal: choices of French toast, pancakes, and steak and eggs for breakfast, and steaks, pork chops, spaghetti, and biscuits and gravy for dinner.
The hot meals gave the crews a much-needed reprieve from the mess of mud, wind and rain that muddled their rescue and recovery efforts among the rubble and muck. And for inmates, it was an opportunity do something helpful for others in need, said Walter Beasley, 41, an inmate from Portland.
"To do something like that — put a smile on somebody's face — that feels good," Beasley said. "That makes you proud, that you're able to do that."
The rescue crews showed remarkable resolve in the face of the tragedy, said inmate Marcus Smith, a 41-year-old from Tacoma. At times, the inmates said they even felt overcome with emotion, looking at all the signs of loss surrounding them.
Smith took a break from his shift at the grill one day and walked over to the nearby coffee station, where Skinner worked. There he noticed several posters that children in the area had put up as a memorial to a woman who died in the slide.
"I kind of got emotional when I read a couple of the posters," Smith said.
Larch houses hundreds of inmates with four years or less remaining on their sentences. For people like Smith, who has about 16 months left in Larch, work on the crew is a chance to ease back into outside world.
The men get paid for their work, but at a rate of only 25 to 35 cents an hour, Skinner said the job isn't about the money at all.
"We get paid cents, but we're doing this because we want to help and give back," he said. "In our situation, I think it gives people that are incarcerated an opportunity to help or show people that we actually do care."
Before joining the crew, Skinner said, he'd spent little time thinking about giving back to others. Now, he and the other inmates take pride in serving the rescue crews near Oso.
"It would be nice to have been able to do more," Skinner said. "If I had my choice, I'd be out there still, or in the actual mudslide helping dig and do whatever I need to do."