Natural Disaster
9:25 am
Mon March 24, 2014

Fears Rise That More Than 8 Died In Snohomish County Mudslide

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 would likely 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 that authorities are working from, 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. "The objective here is very clear. Let's consolidate the lists, consolidate the information, the data that we've got. Let's make it helpful to the families that are out that, that are really struggling right now."

Snohomish County urges residents to call 425-388-5088 to report missing persons or to report they're OK if they've been out of contact. Cell phone, radio and Internet connections were largely cut off in the area; however, laptops and a Wi-Fi connection were available at the Darrington library. 

Pennington said crews are working to get communication back up and running.

"We have a Department of Transportation-type reader board that will have a radio signal that can spread out about two miles. It will be an AM radio station that you can tune into and get information from Snohomish County," he said.

Search and rescue teams took to the air in helicopters and the ground on foot with search dogs to look for anyone who might still be alive, but the possibility of additional slides limited their movement. 

"There are concerns about additional slides in the same area that was affected on Saturday. As a result, some of the ground crew have been pulled back from that area," said Snohomish County sheriff's spokesperson Shari Ireton. 

Airlift Northwest pilot Lucky Mertes, who helped evacuate some of the injured, said what he saw reminded him of the Mount St. Helens eruption more than 30 years ago.

"With the trees and the gash in the mountain, it's sort of what it reminded me of, but obviously not to that scale. But [it's] much bigger than you'd normally expect when you hear about a mudslide," he said. 

The injured victims were taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, mostly with crushing injuries. The victims includes a 6-month-old boy who arrived in critical condition.

Hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg said some of the families of the missing came to the hospital.

"I think they just didn't know where to go and they figured that, you know, Harborview takes care of the most seriously injured, and they thought their loved one might be here," Gregg said.

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 already confirmed dead on 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 that they did not search the entire debris field, only drier areas safe to traverse.

Both 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.