Death Toll From Mudslide Expected To Rise As Rain Complicates Search Efforts

Mar 25, 2014

Authorities say they still don't know how many people remain missing from the mudslide that struck near Oso, Wash., between Arlington and Darrington in Snohomish County Saturday morning.

At least 14 people have died. Several are seriously injured, and one baby boy remains in critical condition in intensive care at Harborview hospital, though his condition is said to be improving.

Officials say they are still culling through multiple reports of people who may have lived or worked in the area. There are dozens reported missing.

Officials say it could take weeks to find all of the missing people.

Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots said FEMA and the National Guard are now boosting local search and rescue operations. Over 200 responders are attempting to locate survivors.

No survivors or signs of life have been discovered in the debris field in the days after the Saturday mudslide, but search crews have found more bodies in the debris, according to Hots.

“You know, when I pictured this slide, I pictured vehicles parked there. And if somebody was in their vehicle when the mudslide came on, that we would just dig through the mud and pull them out of their car and they’d be okay,” Hots said. “But what we’re finding is these vehicles are like twisted and tore up into pieces.”

And Hots said that’s what’s happening to boats and entire buildings, too. First responders have said that the mud is like cement and the rain is slowing down the response effort.

Officials also said at a town hall meeting in Darrington that mud continues to move around the flood zone, forcing rescuers to recheck areas where they had already looked for survivors.

They’re focusing rescue efforts on areas where they know people might have been, like near a house they know was occupied. Hots said dogs have been the most effective tool in pinpointing an area to look. Crews have then been using their bare hands and shovels to uncover people in the mud.

John Pennington, director of Snohomish County's Department of Emergency Management, said that a team has been brought in to deal with the bodies of mudslide victims.

“A mortuary assistance team is pretty common in events like this,” Pennington said. “There is a point at which you bring them in and that is this particular point.”

However, Pennington said that rescue crews are still focused on finding survivors in the devastated areas. “I believe in miracles and I believe people can survive these events. They've done it before and they could do it again; and we're going to operate that parallel track,” he said.

President Barack Obama, speaking at The Hague Tuesday, asked people to send their thoughts and prayers to Washington state. "We hope for the best, but we recognize this is a tough situation," Obama said.

Darrington Mayor Dave Rankin said confronting the disaster is the hardest part of the job. "It's extremely emotional,” Rankin said. “We're a very tight and close community and to have a disaster of this magnitude in a small population, we know all of those people. And the frustration and the empathy and the sensitivity to it is all paramount."

Carolyn Adolph, Lisa Brooks, Sara Lerner and Derek Wang contributed to reporting.

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.