14 dead, scores missing after Washington mudslide

OSO, Wash.

The search for survivors of a deadly Washington state mudslide grew Monday to include scores of people who were still unaccounted for as the death toll from the wall of trees, rocks and debris that swept through a rural community rose to at least 14.

In a struggle to find loved ones, family members and neighbors used chain saws and their bare hands to dig through wreckage that was tangled by the mud into broken piles.

Authorities said they were looking for more than 100 people who had not been heard from since the disaster about 55 miles northeast of Seattle. They predicted that the number of missing would decline as more people are found safe. But the startling initial length of the list added to the anxieties two days after a mile-wide layer of soft earth crashed onto a cluster of homes at the bottom of a river valley.

Authorities say they still don't know exactly how many people are missing.

Snohomish County emergency management director John Pennington said late Monday that officials were working off a potential list of 176 people, but he stressed that authorities believed that included many duplicate names.

"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."

Snohomish County sheriff's spokeswoman Shari Ireton said Monday afternoon that search and rescue crews discovered an additional six bodies, bringing the number of fatalities to at least 14.

About 30 houses were destroyed, and the debris blocked a mile-long stretch of state highway near Arlington.

Cory Kuntz and several volunteers worked Monday with chain saws to cut through the roof of his uncle's house, which was swept about 150 yards from its previous location. Kuntz said his aunt, Linda McPherson, was killed. He and the others pulled out files, his aunt's wallet and a box filled with pictures and slides.

"When you look at it, you just kind of go in shock, and you kind of go numb," he said, adding that there were more people out helping Sunday. On Monday, they couldn't get through roadblocks.

"They are all eager to get down here, but unfortunately they can't. It just shows how tight this community is," he said.

Doug Reuwsaat, who grew up in the area and was also helping in the search, said authorities had told people to stay away.

"We're related to a lot of these people from around here. So that's why we're here," he said.

The mudslide struck Saturday morning, a time when most people are at home.

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

Frustrations were growing as family members and neighbors waited for official word on the missing and the dead. 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. That made her 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 is on the edge of the devastation.

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

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

Retired firefighter Gail Moffett, who lives in 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."

Among the injured were a mother and her baby. Amanda Skorjanc, 25, was in satisfactory condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, spokeswoman Susan Gregg said. Her son, 22-week-old Duke Suddarth, remained in critical condition and was improving, Gregg said. Three other men were in serious condition.

Pennington, the emergency management director, said the list of the missing included construction workers who were working in the area and people just driving by. But, he cautioned, that does not necessarily mean there are dozens of additional fatalities.

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.

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.

On Monday, President Barack Obama declared an emergency, ordering federal aid for the struggling community and federal agencies to coordinate relief efforts.

30 approximate number of houses destroyed

25 full-time residences

49 structures in the area

14 dead, scores missing after Washington mudslide 03/24/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2014 11:48pm]

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