ARLINGTON, Wash. – Eight people have been confirmed dead in the mile-long mudslide that swept through houses near Oso.
Officials announced the rising death toll during a community meeting in Darrington on Sunday night. Authorities earlier in the afternoon had confirmed four dead and at least 18 missing.
Hope for rescuing additional survivors in the mucky debris appeared to be fading, as search efforts earlier in the day turned up one body but no survivors.
“We didn’t see or hear any signs of life out there today,” said Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire districts 21 and 22, during a Sunday afternoon news conference.
Hots said workers would continue to search for survivors until dusk Sunday, and the search would resume this morning.
Hundreds of family members awaited news of missing loved ones, with many fearing the worst.
“The anxiety of that is beyond description,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a noon news conference in Arlington.
Rescuers reported hearing voices from buried buildings on Saturday evening. But by the time they made their way through the shifting mud, the voices had gone quiet.
In addition to the dead and missing, at least eight others were injured when a rain-soaked hillside above state Highway 530 east of Oso gave way Saturday morning.
The casualties are likely to rise as rescuers search through the mass of mud and wreckage that is all that remains of two neighborhoods along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
Hots said a square mile of mud and debris slid across the road, blocked the river and demolished or damaged up to 30 homes.
He said the number of missing is “fluid” and that there may have been vehicles on the road that were swept away that rescuers don’t know about.
“We suspect there are people out there but it is far too dangerous to get the responders out to them,” Hots said during a media briefing outside the incident command center in Arlington.
The names of the people killed in the slide haven’t been officially released, but one is former Darrington librarian and school board member Linda McPherson, 69, according to Pete Selvig, a member of the Darrington emergency response team and a retired U.S. Forest Service employee.
McPherson’s husband, Gary “Mac” McPherson, was also injured. His condition was not immediately known.
The couple’s house, and that of their niece and nephew next door, were both destroyed, Selvig said. The younger couple was not at home, but their dog was trapped in the debris, he said.
Rescuers tried to get to the dog after hearing whimpering Saturday night, but had to give up because the mud and debris was moving, Selvig said.
Hots described an incredibly dangerous situation for the more than 100 rescuers who are trying to access buried structures and debris. The mud is still moving and has the consistency of quicksand. He said the scene overnight was eerie with the sounds of breaking timber and moving debris in the dark.
The fast-moving wall of mud, trees and other debris swept through houses Saturday morning when the soggy hillside gave way. Some bystanders rushed in to try to aid those caught in the slide.
Neighbors retrieved a mud-covered baby within moments of the slide, said an Arlington woman who was driving by when the catastrophe occurred.
“We thought it was a car accident,” said Sierra Sansibar, of Arlington, who said she was driving to Darrington when the road was blocked by the mud. “Then you realize there’s a house in the middle of the road.”
“We heard screaming from a house 100 yards from us. A whole bunch of men went in there and pulled out a 6-month-old baby,” Sansibar said. Firefighters also were arriving, she said.
“There was mud, household items everywhere, people screaming, crying, running into the rubbish.
“Everybody was covered in mud. A lady next door who saw what happened, she was giving them blankets to hold the baby in. They got in a car and left,” Sansibar said.
A child fitting that scenario was airlifted to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, in critical condition.
In Darrington, a search-and-rescue team of about 20 people was advised Sunday morning to mark dead bodies if they saw any and keep looking for survivors.
Some workers emerged from the meeting bleary-eyed and dispirited.
One volunteer firefighter who stopped working around 11:30 p.m. Saturday said many tragic stories have yet to be told. He watched one rescuer find his own front door, but nothing else – not his home, his wife or his child.
They’re in the “missing” category along with many they fear will eventually be listed as dead.
“It’s much worse than everyone’s been saying,” said the firefighter, who did not want to be identified. “The slide is about a mile wide. Entire neighborhoods are just gone. When the slide hit the river, it was like a tsunami.”
Among the missing are a group of girls who were having a slumber party, Selvig said.
By noon on Sunday the dammed-up Stillaguamish River was starting to break through a hole in the mile-wide mud wall near Oso, releasing some flow downstream. But officials said that was not a cause for alarm.
“It’s not flowing at a rate that causes concern. There is water coming through. They don’t feel it is going to be a catastrophic burst,” said Shari Ireton, spokeswoman for Snohomish County.
Even if the water breaches the blockage, it is unlikely to cause major flooding downstream, said Brent Bower, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
Computer modeling by the Northwest River Forecast Center predicts even if the water breaks through it would likely not overflow the river banks, Bower said.
The forecast for the area near Oso looks dry for today, said Johnny Burg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. Rain could return tonight and into Tuesday, but Burg said “we’re not forecasting anything heavy” – maybe a tenth of an inch.
Through March 19, Arlington had recorded 7.14 inches of rain for the month – just a couple inches short of the wettest March on record. A flash flood warning remains in effect.
State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said she isn’t especially worried at this point about severe damage to downstream bridges on Highway 9 and Interstate 5. These bridges do not have any piers midstream, so they’re not vulnerable to debris getting stuck, she said. Bridge engineers will still watch for scour by raging water, at the abutments on either side of the river.
Inslee, who cut short a political trip to Montana to fly back to Washington, thanked rescuers and said he was in awe of the destruction from the mudslide.
“The devastation is just unrelenting and awesome. There is no stick standing in the path of the slide,” Inslee said after flying over the area. “But there is another powerful force of nature, and that is empathy and compassion.”
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