Rescuers walk in floodwaters on Highway 530 as search work continues after the mudslide that struck Oso near Darrington, Washington. REUTERS/Ted S. Warren/Pool
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 (89 km) northeast of
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
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
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
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
"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'
Community members from Oso and nearby towns assembled late
Wednesday to offer prayers for the missing.
"We know, and most of us, I think, are accepting that many of
our people are not going to make it," Megan Fanning, 41, said
at the gathering in Darrington, not far from Oso. "But
please, we need a miracle. Just one. One little miracle would
The community college student noted that the 14-year-old son
of a close friend remained among the missing.
The casualty count has pushed the Oso mudslide into the
history books as one of the deadliest, said Josef Dufek, a
professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who studies
He pointed to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in
Washington, which killed 57 people, and a 1969 landslide in
Nelson County, Virginia, that killed 150.
Many valley residents have channeled their collective trauma
into acts of comfort for the bereaved and support for
Stores in nearby Arlington posted hand-painted signs calling
for solidarity and donations, Boy Scouts collected food
outside a market, and a bowling league offered to donate
tournament prize money toward relief efforts.
"This is a very strong community. ... We all stick together,"
said 25-year-old Jamie Olsen, as her husband and about 40
people in Darrington sorted water, food, diapers and other
supplies for families forced out of their homes.
President Barack Obama has signed an emergency declaration
ordering U.S. government assistance to supplement state and
local relief efforts. A local disaster relief account had
nearly $50,000 in it by Thursday.
Eight more people survived the slide but were injured,
including a 22-week-old baby rescued with his mother. The
baby was listed in critical condition but was improving. The
mother and three other survivors remained hospitalized.