Wednesday, December 30, 2020, was a day when most people around the world were getting ready to usher in a new year. After a year filled with uncertainty and hardship, people were hopeful that 2021 would bring a new dawn of normalcy. But that was not the case for a small village in Norway. They were awoken in the early hours to a world of chaos and tragedy. At around 3:30 in the morning residents of Ask, Norway woke up to literally feel the ground moving beneath them as a landslide began. By 3:51 reports of the landslide were being made to officials as rescue efforts were swiftly put in place.
Ask is about 12 miles northeast of Oslo, the capital of Norway. It is home to around 6,800 people and is the administrative center for the Gjerdum municipality. The landslide that occurred on the 30th was not the first in the Gjerdum municipality. The first recorded landslide was in 1924, then again in 1973. In 1980, a landslide happened nearby where the 2020 landslide would hit. In 2014, yet another landslide destroyed 2 homes. In 2005, results from a geological study showed the possibility of further landslide dangers in Ask. In 2008, geologist Steinar Myrabø issued a warning that construction in designated areas of Ask could lead to catastrophic landslides. Nevertheless, new homes went on to be built despite soil erosion. In November of 2020, construction was still underway near the bottom of where the landslide would happen just a few weeks later.
After heavy rainfall the previous week, the compromised soil crumbled, leading to the largest landslide Norway has ever seen. The landslide spread over an area of up to 766 yards. More than 700 people were evacuated, with the possibility of another 1,500 that will still need to be evacuated. However, getting in to search for anyone trapped in the landslide was far too dangerous for rescuers. The ground was still too unstable. If people were to try to climb through to look for survivors, another landslide could start. Emergency crews had to rely on helicopters, dogs, and drones to search the site.
A dog is small enough with weight that is evenly displaced, so sending in search and rescue dogs was one tool emergency crews could use. Helicopters were used to lower rescue equipment into the pit left by the landslide to retrieve victims. But in the darkness and with freezing temperatures, it was a drone with thermal imaging capabilities that proved to be the most vital tool in the rescuer’s arsenal. The drone’s camera was able to see the heat signatures of victims through the thick mud and debris. Once the drone located a victim, the helicopter could be used to pull them out of the debris pit.
Mr. and Mrs. Sandman were among the victims pulled out of the pit by a helicopter on the morning of the 30th. As Mrs. Sandman describes, “We tried to get out. As we were on our way to the front door, everything fell around us. And we stood in the middle of the landslide and had clay and house debris around us. So we could not get to the front door, it no longer existed.” Later that night, the drone spotted the last living being in the pit left by the landslide. It was the Sandman’s dog, a dalmatian named Zajka.
The Sandmans were overjoyed to be reunited with Zajka, but heartbroken that the drone was not able to find any more living souls. Six days after the landslide, Norwegian officials said that they had given up hope of rescuing anyone else from the landslide. After continuously scanning the region with the drone, there was no longer any possibility for survivors to be found. “It is with great sadness that we now receive the message that there is no longer any hope of finding survivors after the landslide in Gjerdrum,” said Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
With the help of the drone and helicopter, 10 victims were found and transported to a hospital for medical attention. Over the following days, the bodies of another 10 victims were discovered. “In the last week we have done everything we can to save lives,” Police Chief of the Eastern Police District Ida Melbo Øystes said. “We have investigated all areas where it was possible to imagine that someone could have survived. But even though we have given up hope of finding survivors, the search is not over. We are now entering another phase to find everyone who disappeared.” Using drones and dogs search teams will safely continue looking for the final three victims, 49 year old Rasa Lasinskiene, 50 year old Ann-Mari Olsen-Næristorp, and 1year old Victoria Emilie Næristorp-Sørengen.