Still recoiling from forest fires, several gory murders and a child sex ring, this river community of apple orchards had its heart ripped out again Friday.
A sheer hillside collapsed in the morning sun, raining dirt and rocks on a construction crew and burying two people - a Spokane excavation crew boss and a 5-year-old boy.
Authorities publicly were hopeful the victims could survive the landslide a few hundred yards west of the Columbia River on U.S. Highway 97A.
Privately, they bowed to the magnitude of the avalanche, which flattened four front-end loaders and a trailer with enough debris to fill 100,000 to 150,000 dump trucks.
Matt Bakken, 23, of Spokane, was operating one of the loaders when the wall of silt, sand, rocks and car-sized boulders came crashing down.
After the dusty torrent pushed his loader 50 yards and tipped it over, he climbed out and ran to safety. He and five other construction workers escaped injury.
Bakken identified the two victims as his boss - quarry manager Tim Grace of Spokane - and a boy Bakken knew as Tory. The boy’s mother worked at the construction site, a gravel pit and rock-crushing operation. She was treated for shock.
Bakken said he had just dumped a scoopful of dirt into the machine that feeds a rock crusher when the hillside gave way, rolled him toward the river and then elevating his heavy machine.
“All of a sudden I started going up,” Bakken said. “It looked like a wave.”
When the earth stopped moving, debris covered an area 150 yards long, 200 feet wide and 100 feet deep in places - an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million cubic yards. Fuel was leaking from several of the buried machines.
Private construction crews with their own equipment rushed in to help state and county rescue crews dig out the victims, who might have been offered slight protection by the structures they were in.
Grace was last seen in the rock crusher’s control room. The boy was in a modified school bus that served as an office and laboratory.
Portable lights were tacked to utility poles to continue the search after dark.
“As we saw a few weeks earlier in Oklahoma City, people can go a long time if they’re protected,” said firefighter Don Perry. “We’re not giving up hope.”
The work crew was employed by Lloyd Logging of Twisp, Wash., a subcontractor of Morrill Asphalt, a Wenatchee firm that owns the pit.
For Chelan County, the disaster compounded a 10-month string of hard luck, scandal and heinous crime.
A lightning strike last July ignited the worst wildfire in county history, torching 135,000 acres between the Entiat River Valley and Lake Chelan.
A month later, two 12-year-old boys pumped 18 gunshots into a migrant worker resting by the river.
Five weeks ago, across the Columbia River in East Wenatchee, a 43-year-old woman and her 14-yearold daughter were murdered and sexually mutilated. An unemployed roofer who used to live in Spokane has been charged with the crime.
And two weeks ago, five more adults were arrested in connection with sex rings involving children. At least 26 adults face child-rape charges.
Things have been so bad, Newsweek magazine devoted three pages of its May 8 edition to the central Washington community’s troubles.
“When is it going to end?” asked Chelan County Commissioner Tom Green as he and fellow commissioner John Wall surveyed the site.
“Maybe we’ll get some good press someday,” Wall said. “We’re not morally devastated though. One of the things these hardships have done is bring the community closer together.”
The gravel pit, about three miles north of Wenatchee, is in a geologically unstable area, authorities said. It’s not known what triggered the slide, but officials conceded excavation could have been a contributor.
The slide covered 200 feet of U.S. 97A but did not trap passing vehicles.
The highway was closed from just north of Wenatchee to near Chelan, about 30 miles north.
For hours, several front-end loaders and bulldozers reinforced the slide area and dug for victims. From the air, the rescue effort resembled an army of yellow ants scurrying over a freshly piled hill.
“The experts say dirt is like snow, and it’s like an avalanche in that everything has slid forward, so we don’t know exactly where everything is,” said firefighter Rick West.
By afternoon, rescue crews were able to uncover part of the rock crusher but couldn’t see Grace.
“The amount of weight on it is too much,” backhoe operator Mark Germain said.
“If he’s underneath there, he’s been crushed.”
ILLUSTRATION: Three Photos, Two Color; One Map: Morill Asphalt gravel pit
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = J. Todd Foster Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.