16 confirmed dead, 8 located in landslide


by Associated Press, KING 5 News and USA Today


Posted on March 25, 2014 at 6:39 AM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 26 at 9:46 AM

The latest:

  • Snohomish County officials have confirmed they've recovered two additional bodies - bringing the official death toll to 16 - and have located eight more bodies.
  • Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said searchers found no survivors during Tuesday’s search.
  • Overnight search efforts will be scaled back in the dangerous debris areas; over 200 searchers will resume the search at daylight Wednesday.
  • A 24-hour crisis line has been set up for anyone feeling grief who needs to talk to someone: 800-584-3578.
  • Snohomish County officials say they do not need any more volunteers. However, people can call 425-388-5088 or email demcallcenter@snoco.org to report someone missing or someone safe.

DARRINGTON, Wash. — Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington has confirmed two more bodies have been recovered and eight more bodies located in Saturday's landslide. 

The announcement put the official death toll at 16, with the possibility of 24 dead once the other bodies are confirmed. Searchers found no living survivors Tuesday buried in the tons of mud and crumpled homes in Oso, about 55 miles northeast of Seattle.

The grim discoveries further demoralized the four-day search, as the threat of flash floods or another landslide loomed over the rescuers. With scores still missing, authorities are working off a list of 176 people unaccounted for, though some names were believed to be duplicates. Pennington said an updated number would be available Wednesday.

Both Pennington and Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots acknowledged the chances of finding survivors was small, but said the effort remained a rescue and recovery operation.

"We haven't lost hope there's a possibility that we could find somebody alive in some pocket area as the days go on," said Hots. "We are coming to the realization that may not be a possibility, but we are going full steam ahead. Even if we said it was a recovery operation, we are still going at this like I indicated earlier on all eight cylinders. We are going at this hard."

Hots said about 200 responders using everything from heavy equipment and search dogs to their bare hands were working through the debris field Tuesday in rainy, wet conditions.

On-and-off rain throughout the day created wet roads and dangerous conditions for searchers; officials emphasized no more search volunteers were needed. A volunteer rescue worker was injured when a small piece of debris was thrown up in helicopter wash and struck the man in the head. The worker was taken to the hospital with what were described as minor injuries.

Volunteer Gene Karger said he could see six orange flags in the debris field, marking bodies they would be pulling out. Karger, a logger most of his life, said it was the first time he was involved in this kind of rescue work.

"You see parts of their bodies sticking out of the mud. It's real hard. It's that bad," Karger said. "There are people out there we know."

Donate to the Red Cross through Northwest Response

Audio: 911 calls from day of slide

Audio: First responders radio coordination

Call center to report missing

County officials are encouraging people who have reported someone missing on social media or a website, including people who are safe, to call a Snohomish County hot line at 425-388-5088 so officials can update their database. People can also email updates to demcallcenter@snoco.org. It will help if you can send a photo.

Those who are safe are also asked to call or email.  The call center can only take information. It cannot answer questions.

No landslide warnings for the area were issued immediately before the disaster, which came after weeks of heavy rain. The rushing wall of quicksand-like mud, trees and other debris flattened about two dozen homes and critically injured several people.

Pennington had previously described the disaster as "completely unforeseen." The Seattle Times, however, reported this week that multiple geological reports had warned that the area was at risk.

"No language seems more prescient than what appears in a 1999 report filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, warning of 'the potential for a large catastrophic failure,'" the Times reported.

Lynne Rodgers Miller, who wrote the report with her husband Daniel, told the Times that when she saw the news of the mudslide Saturday morning, she knew immediately where the land had given way.

"We've known it would happen at some point," he told newspaper. "We just didn't know when."

Pennington said he was focused on the rescue operation and had not seen the Times report.

"There will be a time to address that," he said, adding that a small earthquake, measuring 1.1, had apparently struck behind the slide on March 10.

Pennington said local authorities were vigilant about warning the public of landslide dangers, and homeowners “were very aware of the slide potential.”

In fact, the area has long been known as the “Hazel Landslide” because of landslides over the past half-century. The last major one before Saturday’s disaster was in 2006.

“We’ve done everything we could to protect them,” Pennington said.

Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, said it appears the report was intended not as a risk assessment, but as a feasibility study for ecosystem restoration.

Asked whether the agency should have done anything with the information, she said, “We don’t have jurisdiction to do anything. We don’t do zoning. That’s a local responsibility.”

President Obama signed an emergency declaration ordering federal aid to the area. The National Guard was on the scene.

"I would just ask all Americans to send their thoughts and prayers to Washington state," Obama said, speaking from the Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague, Netherlands.

The landslide, which consumed a community of almost 50 homes, covers an 1-square mile area. Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin thanked people for the outpouring of support Tuesday, adding that no additional volunteer help was needed.

“We have a perfect team in place to start this process and really kick it into high gear, so we don’t need more volunteers,” said Pennington.

“We are going to do everything that we can, with our capabilities, to recover every single person. That’s no guarantee that we’re going to get everybody, but we are going to do our very best to get everybody out of there,” said Hots.

The next issue for searchers is rain, which is expected over the next four days, but officials say it will not slow down their search efforts. Thompson predicts the river will go up 3-to-4 feet downstream of the slide.