Washington mudslide: 90 still missing

Last updated 15:20 27/03/2014
Reuters

US firefighters say the likely death toll from a devastating weekend landslide in Washington state rises to 24.

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Washington authorities have reduced to 90 the number of people missing from a community wiped out by a mudslide, as the families and friends of those still unaccounted for begin to confront the reality that some may never be found.

No victims were recovered on Wednesday (local time), leaving the official death toll at 16, with an additional eight bodies located but not recovered, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said.

The number of missing had been fluctuating - at one point reaching as high as 220 - but authorities were able to verify that 140 people once reported missing had been located, Pennington said.

That left 90 people still missing, plus 35 others who may or may not have been in the area at the time of the slide. Authorities will focus on finding those 90, but Pennington acknowledged that not everybody may be located.

"Would I like to see it drop to zero? Yes. Do I think it will? No," he said.

The revised numbers come at the end of a rain-soaked fifth day of searching for survivors in the small community of Oso, some 55 miles southeast of Seattle. But as time passes and the death toll continues to rise, the chances grow increasingly dim of finding people alive amid the debris.

With little hope to cling to, family members of the missing are beginning realise their loved ones may remain entombed forever inside a mountain of mud.

Becky Bach watches and waits, hoping that search crews find her brother and three other relatives who are missing in Washington state's deadly mudslide.

Doug Massingale waits too, for word about his 4-month-old granddaughter. Searchers were able to identify carpet from the infant's bedroom, but a log jam stood in the way of a more thorough effort to find little Sanoah Huestis, known as "Snowy."

"It just generates so many questions if they don't find them," Bach said. "I've never known anybody to die in a natural disaster. Do they issue death certificates?"

Search crews using dogs, bulldozers and their bare hands kept slogging through the mess of broken wood and mud, but authorities have acknowledged they might have to leave some victims buried.

Trying to recover every corpse would be impractical and dangerous.

The debris field is about a square mile and 30 to 40 feet deep in places, with a moon-like surface that includes quicksand-like muck, rain-slickened mud and ice. The terrain is difficult to navigate on foot and makes it treacherous or impossible to bring in heavy equipment.

To make matters worse, the pile is laced with other hazards that include fallen trees, propane and septic tanks, twisted vehicles and countless shards of shattered homes.

"We have to get on with our lives at some point," said Bach, who has spent the past several days in the area in hopes that searchers would find her brother, his wife, her 20-year-old great niece and the young girl's fiance.

The knowledge that some victims could be abandoned to the earth is difficult to accept.

"Realistically ... I honestly don't think they're going to find them alive," Bach said, crying. "But as a family, we're trying to figure out what to do if they find no bodies."

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Bach spoke via phone about a wedding the family had planned for summer at the rural home that was destroyed. And how, she wondered, do you plan a funeral without a body? "We'll probably just have a memorial, and if they find the bodies eventually, then we'll deal with that then."

A death certificate, issued by the state, is legal proof that someone has died. Families often need them to settle their affairs. The authority to issue them starts with a county medical examiner or coroner, said Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health. If and when it appears there is no chance of finding someone, people can ask the county to start that process.

In previous mudslides, many victims were left where they perished. Mudslides killed thousands in Venezuela in 1999, and about 1,500 bodies were found. But the death toll was estimated at 5,000 to 30,000, so the government declared entire neighbourhoods "memorial grounds."

Two Washington National Guard Blackhawk helicopters were on site to relieve sheriff's helicopter crews.

The Blackhawks' sole mission is body removal, said Bill Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office.

Other survivors began to grow impatient that they weren't allowed to return to the sites of their homes to search for their valuables and keepsakes.

"This isn't right. All of us who are still alive need to have access and find what we can of our lives," said Robin Youngblood, who said her son-in-law was turned away from the slide site.

OFFICIALS: TRAGEDY OUT OF THE BLUE

Search teams picked through mud-caked debris for a fifth day, looking for scores of people still missing from a deadly Washington state landslide, while officials fended off criticism of property development in the area after previous slides.

The known death toll stood at 24, with many people still unaccounted for near the rural town of Oso, where a rain-soaked hillside collapsed on Saturday, cascaded over a river and engulfed dozens of homes on the opposite bank.

Residents of the stricken community and nearby towns braced for an expected rise in the casualty count as hope faded that anyone else would be plucked alive from the cement-like muck and debris that blanketed an area covering about 2.6 square km.

"My son's best friend is out there missing," said John Pugh, 47, a National Guardsman who lives in the neighbouring village of Darrington. "My daughter's maid of honour's parents are missing. It's raw. And it will be for a long time."

Crews painstakingly combing through the disaster zone under cloudy skies took advantage of a break from Tuesday's rain showers to push ahead in their search for more victims.

At the same time, authorities sought to whittle down their list of unaccounted for individuals, with missing-persons detectives from the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office working to resolve likely redundancies on a roster of people whose fate remained unknown.

County officials also started to address criticism for allowing new home construction on parts of the disaster site after a 2006 landslide in the same vicinity, which itself followed numerous reports detailing the risks of slides dating back to the 1950s.

A 1999 study by geologist Daniel Miller for the US Army Corps of Engineers had warned of the potential for a "large catastrophic failure" in the area, about 89 km northeast of Seattle.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, the county's emergency management director, John Pennington, said local authorities had spent millions of dollars on work to reduce landslide risks in the area after the 2006 event.

He suggested that while officials and residents were aware of vulnerability to unstable hill slopes, Saturday's tragedy came out of the blue.

"We really did a great job of mitigating the potential for smaller slides to come in and impact the community," Pennington said. "So from 2006 to this point, the community did feel safe; they fully understood the risks."

But he also said: "People knew that this is a landslide-prone area. Sometimes big events just happen. Sometimes large events that nobody sees happens. And this event happened, and I want to find out why. I don't have those answers right now."

DEATH TOLL HIGHER

Search and rescue operations tapered off overnight but ramped up to full strength again at first light on Wednesday. Searchers used dogs to pinpoint possible locations of victims, as well as electronic equipment such as listening devices and cameras capable of probing voids in the debris.

"We're not backing off. We're still going at this with all eight cylinders to get everyone out there who is unaccounted for," local fire chief Travis Hots said.

The tally of known dead rose on Tuesday night from 14 to 24 when county officials reported that search crews laboring in a steady drizzle had recovered two more bodies from the disaster zone and located the remains of eight additional victims.

The rising death toll added to a deepening sense of gloom in the cluster of riverfront towns near the site of the mudslide.

"Just about everybody you see here going about their day knows people up there," said Martin McCaulley, 22, a lumber mill security guard in Darrington, as he stood in that town's supermarket. "This is a community that you can't drive down the street without waving 20 times."

Officials said they were still hopeful that many of those listed as missing would turn out to have been double-counted or were slow to alert family and officials of their whereabouts.

Pennington said he expected to have updated figures later in the day on the number of missing individuals, and presumably the death toll.

Eight people were injured in the slide, including a 22-week-old infant rescued with his mother and listed on Wednesday in critical condition, although hospital officials said the baby was improving. The mother and three other survivors also remained hospitalised.

Although authorities have said chances were low of finding more survivors in the thick mud blanketing the landscape, Hots said about 50 more searchers had been brought in to sift through the disaster zone in hopes of a miracle.

The slide already ranks as one of the worst in the United States. In 1969, 150 people were killed in landslides and floods in Nelson County, Virginia, according to the US Geological Survey.

Pennington said he expected President Barack Obama would soon issue a formal disaster declaration for landslide victims, making direct federal assistance available to survivors of the tragedy.

 - Reuters and AP

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