'It’s Just Surreal': Families Cling To Hope In Wake Of Deadly Mudslide

Mar 25, 2014

Doug Dix was in his barn, listening to music, when a screeching sound filled the air.

"It sounded like a double twin Huey, with the engine being torn into shrapnel. I honestly thought one was crashing and I’m up looking for the explosion,” said Dix.

The sound went on for several minutes, Dix said, and the mile-long mudslide that has claimed 14 lives ended just three houses away. He was evacuated, but able to return home and take a look Sunday. He was amazed by how close it came on his neighbor’s property.

"It’s just a wall. It’s taller than his house, wall of mud, mud and soil. And the river’s just startin’ to cut through on the far left of the wall, and it’s aimed right at his house,” Dix said.

Now the town is waiting for the slide to stabilize. Authorities say the shifting debris field is like quicksand or wet concrete that’s about 15 feet deep. It swept over 49 structures. 25 of those were homes that are occupied full time.

Dix says the search and rescue teams still trying to find survivors are putting themselves at risk. There are reports that some of the team members got caught in the debris, all the way up to their armpits.

"The looks on the faces when the guys came back was somewhere between shock and terror. The first responders — they came up and came back to tell us to leave. You could tell on their faces something really bad happened,” he said.

'I Can't Believe This Is Happening'

Down the highway in Arlington, a middle school has been converted into an emergency shelter. In addition to providing beds for evacuees, it’s become a gathering place for people in the area who are missing loved ones.

This is surreal. It’s just surreal. I can’t believe this is happening,” said La Rae de Quilettes, who is trying to locate Ron, her husband of 31 years.

On Saturday morning, the missing electrician met a couple at the site of a new house they were building right in the middle of the slide area. All three are missing. De Quilettes says she’s still praying and imagining he’s somehow alive. She says he was probably installing light fixtures when the slide hit. His cell phone pinged a tower nearby just minutes before.

"We’re hoping he’s like pinned in a closet, somewhere in the mud, but they have air pockets and they’re keeping each other going,” she said.

De Quilettes says she has been avoiding watching any news. Her oldest daughter, Ashley Staub, has become the family’s information hub. Staub is hanging on to the idea that her dad might have gotten into his van and is riding out the slide that way. She’s just barely holding it together.

"The pictures are pretty bad. [I’m] really familiar with the area, so you could tell just how much is not there anymore,” she said.

And they’ve been getting extra information from Staub's uncle, who is one of the search and rescue volunteers. She says even though it’s extremely dangerous, she’s grateful he’s allowed to take part.     

"Not just to like represent our family and also try and be there if they find him [my dad], but, it’s what my dad would be doing, too,” she said. "You know, he’s just that type of guy, that’s exactly what he would have done. And if he’s still there, he’s fighting, because he’s a fighter. And if he’s not, then I just hope he’s at peace."

So far, the list of survivors is small compared to the growing number of missing people. Authorities say they’ve not pulled anyone alive from the wreckage since Saturday. They’re now using dogs and heavy equipment to help. And with more rain in the forecast, the National Weather Service says their job will only get harder.

Caring For The Affected

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp

Several dozen people have spent the night at the makeshift shelter at Arlington's Post Middle School since Saturday, says American Red Cross spokesman Colin Downey. Others have come just to find fellowship among people who really understand the difficulties they’re experiencing, 

“We’re providing them meals, water, comfort. We’ve got disaster mental health workers, trained mental health workers who are here on site to help council, put an arm around somebody’s shoulder or really just be an ear to listen, if that’s what folks need right now,” he said.

Downey says the relief workers and agencies trying to help are often affected, too. He’s been in Arlington since Saturday when the slide hit, destroying two dozen homes on the north fork of the Stillaguamish River.

“I can tell you personally these are our family members, these are our neighbors, so we’re here to help, however we can in this time,” Downey said.

Herbert Swift
Herbert Swift
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp

Herbert Swift and his wife own the New Beginnings Thrift shop in Arlington, which is affiliated with the American Red Cross.

He says people have been dropping off more bags of used clothes and blankets than they can really use.

“People are donating beautiful quilts, kids jackets, women’s vests, PJs, blue jeans, shirts — we have everything,” he said.

The Red Cross says it has all the supplies it needs at the moment. Cash donations are preferred. 

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