By Jonathan Kaminsky
DARRINGTON, Washington (Reuters) - Days after risking his own life and defying arrest by joining the search for Washington state mudslide victims in a vast, mucky debris field near Oso, Dayn Brunner retrieved the body of the No. 1 person he had been looking for - his sister.
Brunner, 42, recounted the tragic coincidence in an interview with Reuters on Friday, two days after it unfolded on the enormous mound of mud and rubble left by last Saturday's disaster, which has claimed at least 26 lives and left 90 people still missing.
Brunner said he was on the mud pile on Wednesday afternoon when other rescue workers found a blue object and called him over to the spot. It was the same color as the car his sister, Summer Raffo, 36, was known to have been driving through the area when the slide struck.
Brunner, a police officer from the nearby town of Tulalip Bay, told his teenage son, with whom he had been working as a volunteer member of the search team, to brace himself what they were about to see.
"He said he'd been preparing himself for five days," Brunner recalled.
As they approached, he saw the body of his sister, still mired from the neck down in mud, seated in the driver's seat of her car.
After an hour of additional digging, Brunner pulled her out by the torso and laid her body out on a tarp. It appeared that she had suffered a blow to the head, but her body was intact.
"She's the most pristine person that's come out of this," he said. "We know she didn't suffer. She most likely never saw it coming."
Soon after the recovery, Raffo's body was flown away by a helicopter. She has since been identified by the medical examiner's office, Brunner said, but it was not immediately certain whether Raffo was among the 17 victims officially counted among the dead as of Friday.
Brunner took Thursday off but returned to the pile on Friday, and said he would keep going back until all those members of the community he was searching with had found their loved ones.
"You can find parts of people, and you can find people that obviously experienced a lot of trauma to their bodies," he said. "You can tell that someone had suffocated, some people had been tossed around pretty good and hit by other objects."
Brunner said the family was planning a funeral toward the end of next week for his sister, who worked as a horse ferrier and was on her way to a friend's farm when a rain-soaked hillside along Highway 530 collapsed and cascaded across the river and roadway below, swallowing dozens of homes and vehicles.
Brunner had joined the early search on Saturday, despite the dangerous conditions posed by quicksand-like conditions, the risk of further slides and authorities who were trying to keep volunteers out of the area by threatening to arrest them.
On Tuesday, officials finally agreed to allow many community members to join official rescue teams working to find survivors in the dangerous rubble. No further signs of life have been detected.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Dan Grebler)