Fears rise that more than 8 died in mudslide

This March 23, 2014 photo, made available by the Washington State Dept of Transportation shows a view of the damage from Saturday's mudslide near Oso, Wash. (Photo Courtesy Associated Press).
This March 23, 2014 photo, made available by the Washington State Dept of Transportation shows a view of the damage from Saturday’s mudslide near Oso, Wash. (Photo Courtesy Associated Press).

ARLINGTON, Wash. (AP) — The search for survivors of a deadly Washington state mudslide grew Monday to include 108 names of people who were reported missing or were unaccounted for, but authorities cautioned the figure likely would decline dramatically.

Still, the size of the list raised concerns the death toll would rise far above the eight people who have been confirmed dead after the 1-square-mile slide Saturday swept through part of a former fishing village about 55 miles northeast of Seattle. Several people also were critically injured. About 30 homes were destroyed, and the debris blocked a 1-mile stretch of state highway.

“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.”

Adding to the worries was that the slide struck Saturday morning, a time of the weekend when most people are at home. Of the 49 structures in the neighborhood hit by the slide, authorities believe at least 25 were occupied full-time.

Snohomish County emergency management director John Pennington said the list of 108 names was pulled together from various sources, and it doesn’t mean there are that many injuries or fatalities.

Among the possible missing are construction workers coming into the neighborhood and people just driving by.

“It’s a soft 108,” Pennington said.

An overnight search of the debris field turned up no other survivors or fatalities, Hots said. He said Monday’s search would include aircraft, search dogs and heavy equipment.

However, conditions remained risky, and authorities had to pull back some crews Monday morning because of concern about the hillside moving, Snohomish County spokeswoman Bronlea Mishler said.

“It is definitely dangerous any time we have an unstable hillside,” she said.

Search and rescue teams took to the air in helicopters and the ground on foot on Sunday looking for anyone who might still be alive. Their spirits had been raised late Saturday when they heard the cries for help from the flotsam of trees, dirt and wreckage.

Dangerous conditions forced them to turn back in the darkness.

Snohomish County sheriff’s Lt. Rob Palmer said four bodies were discovered late Sunday. Earlier in the day, authorities said one body had been found on the debris field. Three people were confirmed dead Saturday.

Crews were able to get to the soupy, tree-strewn area that was 15-feet deep in places Sunday after geologists flew over in a helicopter and determined it was safe enough for emergency responders and technical rescue personnel to search for possible survivors, Hots said.

He added they did not search the entire debris field, only drier areas safe to traverse.

Frequent, heavy rainfall and geography make the area prone to landslides. Less than a decade ago, another slide hit in the same general area. Geologists and other experts said the Stillaguamish River likely caused some erosion in the area that was carved by glaciers.

Authorities believe Saturday’s slide was caused by ground made unstable by recent rainfall.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee described the scene as a “square mile of total devastation” after flying over the disaster area midday Sunday. He assured families that everything was being done to find their missing loved ones.

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.

The river, however, is finding its way through the mudslide, as expected. “It’s good news,” said Steve Thompson, public works director for Snohomish County.

Bruce Blacker, who lives just west of the slide, doesn’t know the whereabouts of six neighbors. “It’s a very close-knit community,” Blacker said Sunday as he waited at an Arlington roadblock before troopers let him through.

The mudslide also blocked about a mile of State Route 530 near the town of Oso.

Search and rescue help came from around the region, including the Washington State Patrol and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Barbara Welsh went to Monday’s news briefing in Arlington to get more information. She said she hasn’t seen her husband, William Welsh, since Saturday when he went to help someone in Oso with a water tank.

Linda Byrnes, a former Arlington council member, checked on friends and other community members Monday morning.

“What they’re doing is hanging out with each other, holding each other up, she said, adding: “You can’t live here without knowing someone who is unaccounted for.”

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