The mud was up to her neck. It was caked into her paws. Even when she was teetering on logs, cold and wet, she was determined to signal to her owner that she’d found someone.
For 11 days, Luau, a 6-year-old, yellow Labrador and certified search dog, led owner Sue Bonney through debris at the site of the Oso mudslide.
Bonney is the pool operator at Rainier Beach Pool. From 1998 to 2007 she volunteered with King County Search and Rescue, and in 2007 she began volunteering with Northwest Disaster Search Dogs in Pierce County.
Luau was given to Bonney when she failed to become a guide dog due to a soft trachea (her neck couldn’t support a specialized guide-dog collar). Bonney and Luau spent two years completing rigorous trainings to become FEMA-certified to assist in disaster recovery efforts.
Just three days after the Oso slide, Bonney and Luau were deployed. Search and rescue dogs were an invaluable resource at the site because of their sense of smell. Without the dogs to lead the way it would have been difficult to determine where to start looking.
Bonney and Luau worked 10-hour days. Bonney said it was the most difficult work she’s ever done.
“I learned a lot about myself and about how to read my dog,” Bonney said.
Bonney ran after Luau through mud and wreckage. She saw twisted cars and houses carried miles from their neighborhoods. They had to avoid the busy excavation crews. When Luau would signal that she’d found something, Bonney would mark the spot for excavation crews and continue on. On her third day at the slide, Bonney was told that Luau had been 100 percent accurate in her findings.
“The families of the missing would just watch us,” Bonney said. “They had this look in their eyes. They were so hopeful that we were going to find their loved ones. When the dogs would signal that they’d found a body, we’d have to be very careful about what we said. We were walking through these families’ lives. We were walking through their toys, their records and their Christmas ornaments.”
Bonney tried to stay in a working mindset to avoid getting overly emotional, but said it was unavoidable. She was searching with three young men on the hazmat team when Luau signaled. When the excavation crew began digging, the men recognized siding from their missing father’s mobile home and his motorcycle.
“That was my moment on the mountain,” Bonney said. “I couldn’t handle it. I had to move on.”
Bonney returned from Oso on Saturday, April 5, but may be deployed for a second rotation.
Bonney joined Seattle Parks and Recreation in 1989. She has served as a lifeguard, wading pool supervisor and is currently a pool operator.
Seattle Parks and Recreation volunteered a tree crew and a heavy equipment crew to assist in the recovery effort along with tools and vehicles. As of April 16, they had not been called to deploy.