Wednesday's search: busy, but slow

Wednesday's search: busy, but slow

Credit: KING / Pool

Searchers continued looking for survivors on March 26, 2014, in Oso, Wash., following a deadly mudslide.

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by Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

NWCN.com

Posted on March 26, 2014 at 6:24 PM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 26 at 6:24 PM

OSO, WASH. -- A busy search operation is still underway Wednesday to find victims of Saturday's deadly mudslide here.

Some 200 emergency responders, heavy equipment operators and at least three dogs were at work in the debris, on the west side of the slide alone.

Included among them are volunteers from the local area, many of them loggers familiar with the terrain and the difficulties involved in moving enormous timbers.

Other teams arriving from Darrington searched on the east side, where a small pond formed by the slide is in their way.

"What has been the most help has been the dogs in finding people. And then our bare hands and shovels to move things," said John Pennington, Snohomish County Emergency Management director.

"We've set up a grid system to insure we're covering all the area," said Chief Steve Westlake, Snohomish County Emergency Management Operations Section. Each grid square is gone over "once, twice or three times as needed," he said.

"There are finds going on continually. They are finding people now," said Steve Mason, a fire battalion chief from south Snohomish County who is leading the west side operation.

As of Wednesday afternoon the official count remained 16 deaths with an apparent 8 bodies found but not yet recovered.

Mortuary teams arrived Tuesday and will be on hand to take bodies that were found, said Pennington.

Rescue teams haven't given up the hope of finding anyone alive, he said. "We're still in rescue and response mode."

Visibility is tough because wreckage is covered in gray muck. Backhoes scoop only partial loads and sometimes spread them on the ground, where several people look to make sure all clues or victims are seen.

"People are under logs, mixed in. It's a slow process," Mason said.

Just then, a chainsaw toppled a tree, clearing more space. Several people huddled around a woody grove, intently focused on a potential recovery.

The sound of helicopters and planes booms along the valley as crews are ferried between the Arlington and Darrington sides of the slide that blocks Highway 530.

Two Blackhawk helicopters arrived from the National Guard Tuesday and are being used to transport rescuers back and forth between the towns," said Pennington.

That helps as the normally 20 minute drive between them has now turned into a tortuous two hour slog over a back country access road.

"Anyone who's using that road, I caution you that it's not a high speed road, it's for emergency back access into Darrington. Parts of it used to be gravel and in some places it's one-way with pull outs," said Steve Thompson, director of Snohomish County Public Works.

From a hillside south of the river, searchers could be seen walking on planks across mud mounds to reach wrecked houses.

At street level, workers hosed themselves off after shifts at what looks like three or four downed houses along Highway 530, where contaminants such as propane and sewage are present.

On the gouged hill where the slide occurred, white markers have been set at the top of the raw cliff, so scientists can fly overhead and measure for any hint the ground will shift again.

The disaster scene, a 25-mile drive east of Arlington, has been compared to the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

In a panoramic sense, that's true -- all about are big mounds of gray sediment, as high as 15 feet, that are shaped like the "hummocks" that the 1980 eruption left in the Toutle River valley.

Teams have scraped clear the westernmost 200 yards of Highway 530, where heavy machines have a stable footing to pivot and lift away logs or fragments of houses. The roadway seems in good shape, in the area uncovered so far.

Many searchers are wearing hardhats and raincoats. Approved volunteers from the area walked in with new hand shovels. Among the rescue trucks were several ambulances, not for victims, but to aid any personnel injured in the mess.

National Guardsmen in red hardhats were shuttling in a pickup truck at noon, to add manpower.

A half-inch black cable has been strung through the brambles, on the hillside above Highway 530, to restore phone and Internet service to Darrington. A small creek below is flowing brown.

Clamshell type loaders pulled out a mangled ATV and a wilted horse saddle. A safe full of guns, and chainsaws, have turned up, along with all sorts of household items.

The mood is mostly somber. Local Fire Chief Travis Hots has been observing in near silence, while two chaplains will drape a comforting arm around a fellow responder coming or going.

The feverish work at the site of slide is mirrored by volunteers in nearby towns busy feeding, clothing and housing those displaced by it.

Now, "the world knows where Oso is," Snohomish County Executive John Lovick said at a briefing Wednesday. "They also now know that we are more than a small community—we are a large family."

Pool reporting: Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times

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