Washington Mudslide Death Toll Expected to Soar as Search for Survivors Continues

Rescue workers look for victims in the mudslide near Oso, Washington March 26, 2014.  Credit: REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Rescue workers look for victims in the mudslide near Oso, Washington March 26, 2014.
Credit: REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Rescuers searching for 90 people still missing five days after a massive Washington state mudslide said they expect the death toll to climb sharply soon, even as they clung to hope on Thursday of finding a miracle survivor.

At least 25 people are known to have died when a rain-soaked hillside collapsed without warning on Saturday, unleashing a wall of mud that engulfed dozens of homes in a river valley near the rural town of Oso, 55 miles northeast of Seattle.

Only the first 16 victims recovered and examined by coroners have so far been officially counted as dead, although local fire district chief Travis Hots said that figure would soon spike upwards. Nine more bodies that have since been found have yet to be added to the official toll.

“In the next 24 to 48 hours, as the medical examiner’s office catches up with the difficult work that they have to do, you’re going to see these numbers increase substantially,” he said.

Snohomish County officials said on Wednesday that about 90 people remained missing or unaccounted for, down from an earlier estimate that was nearly twice that number, and Hots said on Thursday the revised figure was holding. An estimated 180 people lived in the path of the landslide.

Authorities have acknowledged there is little chance of finding any more survivors in the square-mile heap of mud-caked debris and muck left by the landslide, and that the remains of some victims may never be recovered.

Everyone who was discovered alive in the mud pile was rescued by helicopter within the first few hours after the landslide, and rescuers have not found further signs of life, officials said.

Still, Hots said a round-the-clock search effort by more than 200 people, who were painstakingly combing through a disaster site that included “clay balls the size of ambulances,” would press on indefinitely.

“We’re not changing the pace of this. And we’re going to exhaust all options to try to find somebody alive,” he said. “If we find just one more person that’s alive, to me, that’s worth it.”

He said rain expected to last through the day could hamper search efforts, “so it’s going to be a very difficult day.”

GRIEF AND RECRIMINATIONS

As the days wore on, emotions were running raw among loved ones of the dead and missing, and the crews of people searching for them.

Jessica Neal, 30, said she found comfort from Wednesday’s recovery of the body of her father-in-law, Steve Neal, a hot water heater installer who was working at a house hit by the slide, and in learning that he apparently did not suffer long.

“The coroner had details that it was fast,” she said, as she fought back tears.

Shayne Barco, 37, a search team member from Bellingham who arrived at the site on Monday with his trained search dog, a German shepherd named Stratus, said he has labored to keep his emotions pushed to the side while he works.

“It really doesn’t hit you until the day’s over,” he said. “We’re out there digging through people’s lives, doing the best we can to bring closure to some of the families. It’s just take it day by day, chunk by chunk of debris.”

As the potential enormity of the tragedy sinks in, many area residents have voiced a sense of anger that local officials refused to allow volunteers to join the frantic search for victims immediately after the slide, when chances for finding survivors were greatest.

While some used their intimate knowledge of the area to sneak into the disaster zone, others returned home feeling frustrated and helpless.

“I went the first day but we got roadblocked,” said Calvin Burlingame, 62, a retired lumber mill worker who lives a few miles east of the slide and whose nephew is among the missing. “I’m upset that they did that because … the community could have done a lot on our own.”

Burlingame said he understood the risks involved but said it was worth it: “If we give up something to get something for somebody else, then that’s OK.”

State police spokesman Bob Calkins said conditions were simply too dangerous to allow non-professional volunteers into the disaster zone immediately after the slide.

“We wish they could have helped, too,” Calkins said. “It would not have been safe, and we’d have had more victims.”

‘NEED A MIRACLE’

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SOURCE: Reuters – Jonathan Kaminsky

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