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Search for mudslide survivors grows

Published: Monday, March 24, 2014 10:59 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, March 24, 2014 11:07 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP)
A view of the damage from Saturday's mudslide near Oso, Wash. At least eight people were killed in the 1-square-mile slide that hit in a rural area about 55 miles northeast of Seattle on Saturday. Several people also were critically injured, and about 30 homes were destroyed. (AP photo)

ARLINGTON, Wash. – The search for survivors of a deadly Washington state mudslide grew Monday to include 108 people who are still unaccounted for, raising fears that the death toll could climb far beyond the eight confirmed fatalities.

Authorities predicted that the number of missing would decline as more people are found to be safe, but the startling initial length of the list added to the anxieties in this former fishing village two days after a mile-wide layer of soft earth crashed onto a cluster of homes at the bottom of a river valley.

“The situation is very grim,” Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said, stressing that authorities are still in rescue mode and are holding out hope. But he noted: “We have not found anyone alive on this pile since Saturday.”

About 30 houses were destroyed, and the debris blocked a mile-long stretch of state highway about 55 miles northeast of Seattle.

Adding to the worries was the timing of the mudslide, which struck Saturday morning, a time when most people are at home. Of the 49 structures in the neighborhood, authorities believe at least 25 were full-time residences.

An overnight search of the debris field turned up no other fatalities, Hots said. Monday’s search was to include aircraft, dogs and heavy equipment.

Retired firefighter Gail Moffett, who lives in nearby Oso, said she knows about 25 people who are missing, including entire families with young children.

“It’s safe to say I’ll know everyone affected or who they are,” Moffett said. “There’s so much pain going on in the community right now.”

Elaine Young and her neighbors uncovered several bodies Sunday and had to contact authorities to get them removed. They also found a chocolate Labrador named Buddy alive, and helped pull the dog from the rubble, leading her to wonder if other survivors could be out there, desperate for help.

“If we found a dog alive yesterday afternoon that we cut out of a part of a house, doesn’t that seem that maybe somebody could be stuck up under part of a house and be alive too?” asked Young, whose home survived the slide but was on the edge of the devastation.

She said she realized searchers need to stay safe, but lamented the pace of rescue efforts.

Authorities believe Saturday’s slide was caused by recent heavy rains that made the terrain unstable.

From the beginning, rescue crews on the ground have faced dangerous and unpredictable conditions as they navigated quicksand-like mud and debris that was 15 feet deep in some places. Some who went in got caught up to their armpits in the thick, sticky sludge.

The threat of potential flash floods or another landslide also loomed over rescuers. On Monday, some crews had to pull back because of concern that a hillside could shift.

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said the list of names included construction workers who were working in the area and people just driving by. But, he cautioned, it does not necessarily mean there are scores of additional fatalities.

“It’s a soft 108,” Pennington said, explaining that the number would almost certainly fall as people are slowly located.

The spirits of search-and-rescue teams were raised late Saturday when they heard cries for help from the flotsam of trees, dirt and shattered wood. But no one else has been found alive.

Three people were confirmed dead on Saturday. By late Sunday, the number of fatalities had risen to eight.

On Sunday, crews were able to get to the soupy, tree-strewn area after geologists flew over in a helicopter and determined it was safe to search for survivors, Hots said.

They did not search the entire debris field, only drier, safer areas, he added.

The slide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, which is continuing to back up, officials said. Authorities said Monday at least seven homes are now flooded, and more flooding is expected.

Frequent, heavy rain and steep geography make the area prone to landslides. Less than a decade ago, another slide hit in the same general area. Geologists and other experts said the river probably caused some erosion in the area that was carved by glaciers.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee described the scene as “a square mile of total devastation” after flying over the disaster area Sunday. He assured families that everything was being done to find their missing loved ones.

Bruce Blacker, who lives just west of the slide, doesn’t know the whereabouts of six neighbors.

“It’s a very close-knit community,” Blacker said as he waited at an Arlington roadblock before troopers let him through.

Barbara Welsh went to Monday’s news briefing in Arlington to get more information. She said she hasn’t seen her husband, William Welsh, since Saturday, when he went to help someone in Oso with a water tank.

Linda Byrnes, a former Arlington council member, checked on friends and other community members Monday morning.

“You can’t live here without knowing someone who is unaccounted for,” she said.

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