March 23, 2014 in Nation/World

Mudslide kills three northeast of Seattle

With voices heard, search continues
Donna Gordon Blankinship And Chris Grygiel Associated Press
Associated Press photo

A fatal mudslide brought debris down the Stillaguamish River near Oso, Wash., on Saturday, stopping the flow of the river and destroying several homes.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

SEATTLE – Rescue crews searched into the night for survivors from a massive mudslide northeast of Seattle that killed at least three people, after hearing voices from the debris field pleading for help.

The slide of mud, trees and rocks happened about 11 a.m. Saturday near the Snohomish County town of Oso. Several people – including an infant – were critically injured and at least six houses were destroyed.

Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said at a news briefing late Saturday that searchers weren’t giving up on finding more people.

“We have people who are yelling for our help, and we are going to take extreme risks,” Hots said.

It wasn’t clear how many people might still be alive, he said.

“This is still a rescue mission until we determine otherwise,” Hots said.

The slide also blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, which prompted an evacuation notice because water was rising rapidly behind the debris.

Authorities worried about severe downstream flooding if water suddenly broke through the blockage.

The landslide also completely covered state Route 530 near Oso, about 55 miles northeast of Seattle. It was at least 135 feet wide and 180 feet deep, Snohomish County authorities said.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office reported that two people had been killed at the scene. Authorities later said one of the people who was rescued died at a hospital.

The injured included a 6-month-old boy, who was in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg said two other victims were in critical condition – an 81-year-old man and a 37-year-old man – while a 58-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman were in serious condition.

Five of the injured were brought to Cascade Valley Hospital in Arlington, and one has already been treated and released, said hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Egger. She didn’t know the condition of the others.

The American Red Cross has set up at the hospital, and an evacuation shelter was created at Post Middle School in Arlington.

The power, speed and severity of the slide were spectacular as it swept over a 360-yard-long section of state Route 530 with mud and debris up to 20 feet deep.

“In three seconds, everything got washed away,” said Paulo de Oliveira, of Lynnwood, who was driving on the highway when the slide hit. “Darkness covering the whole roadway and one house right in the middle of the street.”

De Oliveria said he was behind two other vehicles when the slide hit.

“I came within about 50 feet of being washed out.”

He got out of his car and heard a woman scream from one of the swamped houses.

“Along the river, I saw one place where there were two homes and they were just gone. Nothing left but a portable toilet … destruction all around.”

Search-and-rescue help came from around the region, plus the Washington State Patrol and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Hots said crews heard voices on the eastern edge of the debris field. Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary said, “We have rescuers on the ground on both sides of the slide who are going to be there all night; we’re combing through the debris field on the ground trying to rescue people.”

The National Weather Service has issued a flash flood watch for Snohomish County through this afternoon.

People who live in the North Fork’s flood plain, from the small communities of Oso to Stanwood, were urged to flee to higher ground.

Forecasters warned that some flooding was also possible north of the slide area. The Weather Service said “catastrophic flooding” was unlikely downstream, but authorities were taking no chances and urged people to leave.

Bart Treece, spokesman for the Washington state Department of Transportation, said he didn’t know how long the two-lane rural road will be closed. Drivers were advised to find another way to get between Darrington and Arlington, he said.

Authorities believe the slide was caused by groundwater saturation from recent heavy rainfall. John Pennington from the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management said the area where the slide occurred has a history of unstable land. He said a slide also happened there in 2006.

Pennington said the most recent incident happened without warning.

“This slide came out of nowhere,” he said.

Saturday evening, state highway crews were prepared to close bridges downstream – even one over Interstate 5 – when water surges through the blockage.

“A river has got a lot of energy in it. When you’ve got a plug, the pressure is going to build up and it’s going to blow,” Treece said.

Because a rush of water could erode bridge supports, WSDOT doesn’t want anyone on the spans until after the torrent has passed and any damage been inspected, he said. One of two I-5 spans over the river was built in the 1930s and is of particular concern, Treece said.

The Seattle Times contributed to this report.

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