Rescue efforts hampered as landslide toll at 14

Nearly three days after a massive landslide tore through a stretch of Washington state, killing at least 14 people and leaving scores unaccounted for, the painful uncertainty left in its wake was joined by fears of fresh dangers. Snohomish County warned Monday that because of worries about “additional slide activity” in the vicinity, some ground rescue crews were pulled back from the area, while flooding still remained a grave concern.

The landslide occurred Saturday morning, blocking a stretch of Route 530 near Oso, about an hour north of Seattle. It appears to have been caused by ground saturation due to heavy rainfall in the area, officials said.

At least 14 people were confirmed dead by Monday evening, a number that could rise — there were 176 names on the list of people reported missing or unaccounted for after the landslide, John Pennington, director of emergency management for Snohomish County, said in a news conference.

That number was a substantial increase from the 18 said to be unaccounted for on Sunday. But Pennington cautioned that the number was expected to decrease, noting that it comprised only names that have been reported to various agencies rather than people confirmed to be missing. The details ranged from the full names of people who definitely live in the area to reports as vague as “Frank — I met him once. I think he lived over there,” Pennington said.

“The 176 I believe very strongly is not going to be the number we’re going to see in fatalities,” Pennington said. “I believe it’s going to drop dramatically.”

The Snohomish County landslide

But Pennington said that the timing of the landslide was worrisome. Had it occurred on a weekday at the same time, many people may have been at work; instead, on a Saturday morning, more people were likely to be in their homes.

At least 100 emergency responders fanned out on the ground around the landslide Monday, searching for the missing. Rescuers were using thermal imaging cameras to find people amid the destruction. Search dogs and helicopters were also dispatched.

“I’m very disappointed to tell you that we didn’t find any sign of any survivor and we didn’t find any survivors today,” Travis Hots, the Snohomish County District 21 fire chief, said in a news conference Monday evening.

The slide encompassed an area spanning one square mile, and in some places it was up to 15 feet deep, according to county officials. That depth is causing problems for rescue workers, who have to wade through mud, debris and other wreckage across an area that has “quicksand-like consistency,” according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

Some rescue crews were pulled out for a few hours on Monday afternoon amid fears that additional slides were possible, but the area was checked out and confirmed to be stable, said Steve Thomsen, the county’s public works director.

Nearly 50 plots of land in the affected area featured some form of structure, Pennington said. That includes a mix of homes, recreational vehicles and a cabin. Nearly half of those lots were occupied by people who lived there full time.

Steven Neal, a self-employed plumber who lives in nearby Darrington, was in the area hit by the landslide because he was working on a home that someone had just moved into.

“Waiting and not knowing has been really hard on me and my family,” Ryan Neal, his son, said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s been hard on everybody.”

An eyewitness who saw the mudslide “said it happened in about three seconds,” said Neal, 29. “Before he even brought his car to a halt from slamming on the brakes it was done.”

Harborview Medical Center in Seattle said Monday that five patients were brought there as a result of the landslide. Two of those patients — including a 6-month-old boy — were critically injured.

“It’s safe to say I’ll know everyone affected or who they are,” Gail Moffett, a retired firefighter, told the Associated Press. “There’s so much pain going on in the community right now.”

A state of emergency has been declared after the landslide. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had pledged to provide immediate federal assistance. The U.S. Transportation Department will make $1 million in emergency relief funds available to help Washington repair roads damaged by the mudslide, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell joined with Reps. Rick Larsen and Susan DelBene — all of them Democrats representing Washington state — in issuing a statement thanking the two agencies for their quick response.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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