BAINBRIDGE ISLAND - Working in a steady drizzle, rescuers yesterday dug for hours in a twisted mound of mud and lumber, hoping that somehow, someone was alive.
But the mudslide that crushed a three-story house on the shore of Bainbridge Island killed Dwight and Jennifer Herren and their two sons, 2-year-old Skyler and 3-month-old Cooper. The family was buried in mud after the face of a bluff behind their house slid off in the rain yesterday morning.
A neighbor reported the slide shortly before 8 a.m.
The force of the slide flattened recently built retaining walls on the slope, officials said, pushing the house off its foundation and across a concrete walkway along the shore called Rolling Bay Walk. The two bottom floors of the house were buried in mud 8-feet deep in spots. Only the unfinished top floor of the house, which toppled on its side into the water, was visible.
"By all indications it appears to have happened very rapidly," said Bainbridge Island Fire Department director Ken Guy.
Dozens of rescue workers with dogs, shovels and an excavator probed the mound for more than six hours yesterday.
Even after a first body was pulled from the wreckage at about 12:30 p.m., fire officials said they were treating the excavation as a rescue effort. Hope that the family had somehow survived in a pocket of air in the mud ended around 4 p.m., when workers announced they had found three more bodies. They were all found in the
daylight basement, officials said, where the family's bedroom was.
It was the second time in less than a year that mudslides had hit the expensive, wooded neighborhood on the island's east side, where some houses sell for $500,000. The Herrens were evacuated from their house last April when two days of rain sent mud sliding down the slope, knocking a nearby house off its foundation and damaging several others.
Friends gathered yesterday on Rolling Bay Walk say Herren, 43, a Bainbridge High School biology teacher and native of the island, was remodeling the house himself after buying it about five years ago.
"They were very excited," said neighbor Mark Freeman. "Nearly every day Dwight would be up pretty early in the morning pounding nails. Dwight did the best he could to make it safe."
"It was their dream home," he added.
The Herrens had moved back into the house around the holidays, friends said, and were living in the finished basement. The top two floors were not finished.
Anna Bell Farrar, 17, baby-sat for the Herrens Saturday night in the house - just hours before the slide. Dwight and Jennifer Herren had gone to see the movie "The English Patient," Farrar said - the couple's first time out in months. Jennifer had been so nervous about leaving 3-month-old Cooper that she called several times on the way to the theater. They returned at 10:30 p.m., after Skyler had fallen asleep watching the movie "Babe" on TV, Farrar said.
"She'd been a wreck the whole movie," Farrar said. "Mr. Herren was kind of laughing, teasing her."
Farrar said that as she left the house at about 10:45 p.m. she heard water running down the slope and noticed how much water had gathered on the concrete walk.
"It was just saturated," she said.
Farrar said she remembered Herren commenting on how lucky his family was that they hadn't been at home during the slides last April.
Students bring candles, flowers
Farrar and other students brought a bouquet of blue irises to the house last night and arranged candles and shells on the beach nearby.
Herren, a popular teacher, was known for giving very difficult tests and loving dramatic science demonstrations, Farrar said. He had just started a science club at the school.
Herren also had a lot of "common ground" with students, Farrar said, staying attuned to their personal lives and calming them about college worries.
"He was really serious and focused," said Matt Baxter, 17. Students had nicknamed Herren "Fabio" for his good looks and long blond hair, Baxter said.
Yesterday evening, teachers and administrators in the high school's "crisis team" gathered at the school.
Exactly when the slide occurred is unclear. Neighbors called 911 shortly before 8 a.m. to report the house was in the water. The lower floors of the house were crushed in a "pancake-type collapse," said Bainbridge Island Fire Department Chief Kirk Stickels.
News of the deaths spread quickly around the close-knit island, where the Herrens were well-known.
The death of four people in one accident is among the worst tragedies ever on this island of 18,500.
"I was stunned," said Mayor Janet West, who said she has known Dwight Herren's parents, Vern and Janet Herren, for decades.
"The vulnerability of the island is going to make a lot of people stop and think. It brings the winter weather home in a shocking way," West said.
Herren's parents have run Vern's Winslow Drug for about 40 years.
Herren graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1971.
Before he began teaching, Herren earned two master's degrees, at the University of Washington and Cornell University. For about a decade, he worked for the state Department of Fisheries, logging hundreds of hours underwater as a diver in the agency's shellfish program on Hood Canal.
Three and a half years ago, he was hired by his alma mater to teach science. This year, he was teaching advanced-placement biology and physical science.
"He was an exceptionally good teacher," said Bainbridge High Principal David Ellick. "He had a real passion for his subject."
Bruce Claiborne, chair of the science department, said Herren was a very popular, enthusiastic teacher.
"I think one of the things Dwight wanted to do was get the kids involved as in-depth in the subject as he could," Claiborne said. "He was very involved beyond the classroom."
Wife worked for city of Bellevue
Jennifer Herren, who used her maiden name, Cantrell, at work, was a senior planner for the city of Bellevue. She began about seven years ago in the utilities department, where she worked to start up the city's recycling program.
In 1993, she switched to the department of Planning, Neighborhoods and Economic Development doing outreach, neighborhood improvement and citizen surveys. She won several national awards for communication research.
Deputy City Manager Anne Pflug said Cantrell had recently returned to work from maternity leave.
"Jennifer was very well-liked and she had a special rapport with the city's neighborhoods," Pflug said.
Before starting with Bellevue, Cantrell worked as an office manager at a law firm, Pflug said. Her parents live in Arizona.
Herren's brother, Scott, said Jennifer and Dwight had met on a ferry and were married about four years ago.Nearby houses are evacuated
After the discovery of yesterday's mudslide, city officials evacuated three houses on either side of the Herrens' house. Residents won't be allowed back in until Bainbridge Island building officials and geotechnical engineers inspect the area today.
As many as 20 homes along the walkway were evacuated yesterday as a precaution; some of those residents were allowed to return last night. Homes at the top of the bluff above the slide area were set back far enough not to be threatened, a fire official said.
Last April, mudslides in the same area forced people from some 30 houses. It's unclear if the Herrens' house was damaged in that mudslide.
Following that slide, the city hired a geotechnical engineer to evaluate the stability of the land and make recommendations. One recommendation was that homeowners whose drainage pipes dumped onto the face of the hill reroute their drainage pipes directly to a ditchline or to the beach area. It was unknown if that recommendation was followed, said Bainbridge Island City Engineer Jeff Jensen.
The city also advised residents in the area that "it would be in their best interests to look into getting some investigation done," Jensen said.
Since the hillside is privately owned, it's up to the residents to seek professional opinions on the stability of the land, he said.
Residents who are concerned about potential mudslides should look for a consulting engineer who specializes in geotechnical engineering, Jensen said.
There are "dozens" of potential slide areas on the island, said Mayor West. "I suppose any one of them could go at any time, given the weather conditions. . . . But I don't think there's anything that imminent. I just think people who own houses that sit on the bank should make sure they take precautions, knowing that they're in a relatively potentially unstable area."