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THE NORTHWEST QUAKE

After the Jolt, a Wave of Mud Engulfs Suburb

March 01, 2001|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RENTON, Wash. — Mud covered Robert Van Dorssen's hands in thick and black and bloodied streaks. He didn't notice the dirt as he carefully ushered his son and his dog into the family Suburban.

After all, it was everywhere.

In his garage. In his wife's hair. In the foundation that, until this afternoon, had cemented his four-bedroom house to earth.

When a 6.8 earthquake rocked Seattle on Wednesday and rippled across the Pacific Northwest, it triggered a series of floods and mudslides in this bedroom community nestled along the Cedar River.

Van Dorssen, 42, and his wife, Paula, moved here from New Jersey nine years ago--drawn to the cozy 1940s home perched in the middle of a five-acre lot just north of the river.

It was safe here, Van Dorssen said Wednesday. Far from the bustle of Seattle's downtown area and with a bit more personality than the tract homes growing out of the nearby suburbs.

The Van Dorssens slung a hammock into the aging maple tree out front. And on cool summer nights, while lying back and watching the stars, they could hear the sound of the running water.

The river here rarely flooded, Van Dorssen said, particularly on their side.

Sure, people still talked about the floods that hit Renton over Thanksgiving weekend back in 1990--when warm rain and melting snow caused rivers all across western Washington to surge over their banks.

But this has been a dry winter, law enforcement officials said. No one expected that this, the largest quake to hit town in 52 years, would cause a 1,000-foot landslide, dam the river and ultimately engulf the neighborhood in a wave of mud and debris.

Down at the 1st Avenue Bridge in south Seattle, where Van Dorssen works, the marine electronics engineer scrambled to find shelter when the earthquake hit. As windows shattered and bricks crumbled to the ground below, Van Dorssen tried to call Paula. Minutes passed.

He finally got through.

It's OK, she said. It was just a big jolt. I'm fine. Everyone's fine.

Van Dorssen left work anyway and began the 30-minute commute home.

"See, I thought she was still in the house, maybe with the kids," said Van Dorssen, a cigarette held shakily in one hand. "I wanted to make sure everything was OK."

It wasn't. The earthquake had broken off at least 10,000 yards of loose dirt, rocks and brush in the nearby hills.

Water pipes, buried deep beneath the ground, had cracked and spewed waves of water into the dry soil.

Tons of mud flowed down the hill, swallowing objects and houses along the way and dumping it all into the river--everything from dollhouses and pet carriers to twisted tree trunks.

The muck piled up, blocking 70% of the river and sending the angry dark waters into the backyards of dozens of homes, where 149th Avenue S.E. crosses the waterway.

Few people were home at the time Van Dorssen pulled up and found that his home had been in the path of the mud.

"The house just broke," said his 17-year-old son, Nick Van Nierop. "Everything's filled with dirt."

Van Dorssen panicked, running and stumbling through the mushy ground. Paula's in there. He screamed her name, started clawing at the mud that had crumpled his home.

There's no more garage. It's separated from the house, drooping like a plant. The white wooden siding collapsed under the weight of the dirt, which shoved the house several feet off its foundation.

A neighbor saw Van Dorssen and rushed to his side.

She's not there. She went to go get your daughters from school.

"I can't really think right now," Van Dorssen said after he was certain that his family was safe.

He studied his home, knowing that the photo albums were stored near the garage. They're probably destroyed. "We're staying with friends until we figure out what to do next."

At the top of the list of the unknowns is money. The family doesn't have flood or earthquake insurance.

No one in the neighborhood was hurt, said Renton law enforcement officials, who quickly corralled a team to dredge the riverbed and reroute the waters to a side canal.

For now, the flood has eased.

Television crews and curious bystanders crowded the road, staring at the house and at Van Dorssen. "Thank God that wasn't my house," they whisper to one another.

He walked away from the murmurs and the questions, and toward the comforting circle of nearby friends and family. He'd had enough for today.

Back at the house, the mud continued to ooze along the ground.

The house, for now, is standing. An alarm clock was quietly ringing inside, waiting to be turned off.

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