ARLINGTON, Wash. — Searchers found another body Sunday in the debris from a massive landslide, bringing the death toll to at least four from the wall of mud and debris that also completely destroyed a small riverside neighborhood in Washington state.
At least 18 people remained missing, though authorities warned that number could grow.
Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said Sunday evening that crews were able to get out to the muddy, tree-strewn area after geologists flew over in a helicopter and determined it was safe enough for emergency responders and technical rescue personnel to search for possible survivors.
“We didn’t see or hear any signs of life out there today,” he said.
Despite that, Hots said crews were still in a “search and rescue mode. It has not gone to a recovery mode at this time.”
He said the search would continue until nightfall, when conditions would become too dangerous.
The 1-square-mile mudslide that struck Saturday morning also critically injured several people and destroyed about 30 homes.
Before crews could get onto the debris field late Sunday morning, they looked for signs of life in the quicksand-like mud below by helicopter.
Rescuers’ hopes of finding more survivors were buoyed late Saturday when they heard people yelling for help from within the debris field, but they were unable to reach anyone. The mud that destroyed as many as 30 homes was so thick and deep that searchers had to turn back.
Rescuers heard nothing when they got closer, and the decision was made to retreat because it was too dangerous, Hots said Sunday.
“We have this huge square-mile mudflow that’s basically like quicksand,” he said.
The slide wiped through what neighbors described as a former fishing village of small homes — some nearly 100 years old. The neighborhood “is not there anymore,” Hots said.
Because of the unstable situation, authorities said it was initially too dangerous to send rescuers on foot into the area Sunday. But Hots said the geologists told them later Sunday they could venture out.
As the search for the missing continued, authorites some may have been able to get out on their own. The number unaccounted for could change because some people may have been in cars and on roads when the slide hit just before 11 a.m. Saturday, Hots said.
Officials described the mudslide as “a big wall of mud and debris.” It blocked about a mile of State Route 530 near the town of Oso, about 55 miles north of Seattle. It was reported about 60 feet deep in some areas.
Authorities believe the slide was caused by ground made unstable by recent heavy rainfall.
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.
“There is a full scale, 100 percent aggressive rescue going on right now,” said Inslee, who proclaimed a state of emergency.
The slide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. With the water rising rapidly behind the debris, authorities worried about downstream flooding and issued an evacuation notice Saturday. The water had begun to seep through the blockage Sunday afternoon.
Snohomish County officials said Sunday that residents could return home during daylight hours, but that they’ll likely re-issue the evacuation order Sunday night. Even though the evacuation had been lifted, Inslee urged residents to remain alert.
John Pennington, director of Snohomish County Emergency Management Department, said there were concerns that the water could break downstream, as well as back up and flood areas upstream.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for Snohomish County through Monday afternoon.
Shari Ireton, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish County sheriff’s office, said Sunday that a total of eight people were injured in the slide.
A 6-month-old boy and an 81-year-old man remained in critical condition Sunday morning at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg said two men, ages 37 and 58, were in serious condition, while a 25-year-old woman was upgraded to satisfactory condition.
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. There were almost 20 homes in the neighborhood that was destroyed, he said.
Search-and-rescue help came from around the region, including the Washington State Patrol and the Army Corps of Engineers. More than 100 were at the scene.
Evacuation shelters were created at Post Middle School in Arlington and the Darrington Community Center.
Dane Williams, 30, who lives a few miles from the mudslide, spent Saturday night at a Red Cross shelter at the Arlington school.
He said he saw a few “pretty distraught” people at the shelter who didn’t know the fate of loved ones who live in the stricken area.
“It makes me want to cry,” Williams said Sunday.