Rescuers fear more dead to be found

New York TimesMarch 25, 2014 

APTOPIX Washington Mudslide

Rescue workers remove one of a number of bodies from the wreckage of homes destroyed by a mudslide near Oso, Wash., Monday. The search for survivors of Saturday’s deadly mudslide grew Monday as the death toll rose to at least 14.

JOSHUA TRUJILLO — AP

  • Scientist warned of risk in area

    A scientist working for the government had warned 15 years ago about the potential for a catastrophic landslide in the community where the collapse of a rain-soaked hillside over the weekend killed at least 14 people and left scores missing.

    As rescue workers slogged through the muck and rain in search of victims Tuesday, word of the 1999 report raised questions about why residents were allowed to build homes on the hill and whether officials had taken proper precautions.

    “I knew it would fail catastrophically in a large-magnitude event,” though not when it would happen, said Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist who was hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do the study. “I was not surprised.”

    Snohomish County officials and authorities in the devastated rural community of Oso said they were not aware of the study.

    But John Pennington, director of the county Emergency Department, 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.

    Associated Press

— The search for survivors at the site of a massive landslide continued Tuesday with the growing fear that rescue workers will find more bodies beneath the several stories of mud with the consistency of freshly poured concrete.

Officials in Snohomish County say they have had 176 reports of people unaccounted for – up from 108 Monday – since a wall of mud came cascading down a mountain slope Saturday onto the tiny community of Oso. At least 14 people have been killed.

“We’re expecting that number to go up throughout the day,” Travis Hots, a local fire official, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Tuesday evening, The Associated Press reported that more bodies had been found, but the number wasn’t made public.

Gene Karger told reporters 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.”

Hots said the rain expected to start falling later in the day and continue throughout the week would make the search “more challenging.” The work, he said, will probably take weeks but added that even a meticulous search was “no guarantee that we’re going to get everybody.”

Emergency management officials have cautioned that the number of people unaccounted for was likely to go down because some of the reports of missing people are duplicates or vague, with little more than a first name to go on.

But the sense of an expanding disaster – one that will touch more lives – was unavoidable as the slide’s grim dimensions emerged. Emergency officials said the new list included not just residents but also home repair contractors, visitors and people who may have been driving on a state road when the slide began.

Search-and-rescue efforts were continuing where possible on the mile-square site, using dogs, ground-penetrating radar, aircraft and other tools, officials said. Technicians are also trying to locate people in the mud and debris by pinging their mobile phones.

Fifty Washington members of the state National Guard arrived Tuesday to aid in the search, along with search-and-rescue teams from around the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was setting up a command center in the area to help coordinate the work, a spokeswoman said. Mortuary assistance teams have also started to arrive, officials said.

The timing of the slide on a Saturday morning, with children out of school and many adults off work, added to fears that many people were at home when it hit.

Frustrating pace

Becky Bach, who grew up in the area, said she had not heard from her brother and his wife, Thom and Marcy Satterlee, and two other relatives since before the mudslide.

“We have four of them missing,” Bach said, choking up. “They’re telling us that they’re not seeing anything alive out there. At this point we just want closure. We want some bodies.”

Andrea Hulme, who is Bach’s niece and Satterlee’s daughter, said the slow pace of rescue efforts had been frustrating. Emergency crews have had to proceed slowly through the thick mud and have had to withdraw altogether at times out of fear of new mudslides.

“Everyone is saying they’re only going to be recovering bodies, but no one is looking because they say it’s not safe,” Hulme said. “I’m not capable of saying they are dead right now. They could be dead – but I’m not going to think that until I’m shown they are dead. I just don’t think we should give up hope, because it’s possible they’re out there.”

She added: “I’m hearing that people are going in there to try to dig out their family members. I’d be doing that if I could get there. It’s my family. I’m willing to risk my life to try to save them. I know how strong each of them are, and they’re probably trying to dig their way out, or waiting for help.”

‘Out of nowhere’

The area around Seattle has had problems with landslides, and the hill where the slide occurred has been the site of several other slides dating to the 1940s, in part because of its position above the meandering North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, which over the years has cut away at the base of the hill, according to reports prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But engineers believed that they had adequately stabilized the hill after a mudslide in 2006. John Pennington, director of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, said Monday that the slope had been “considered very safe.”

“This was a completely unforeseen slide,” Pennington said. “This came out of nowhere.”

Around March 10, he said Tuesday, there was a 1.1-magnitude earthquake near the slide area, but it was not yet clear what role that may have had in the mudslide.

Pennington said his agency had made periodic warnings to county residents about the risks of landslides.

“We’ve done everything we could,” he said.

Dog found alive

Amid the devastation, some people escaped death out of pure luck.

Irene Kuntz said her son, Cory Kuntz, and his wife had been at their son’s baseball game in Tacoma when the mudslide hit. That saved them. But their house was flattened, and their dog, left at home, was missing.

On Sunday, the family went back to the house, hoping to salvage what they could, and they heard the dog, a lab named Buddy, whimpering inside “a huge pile of stuff,” Irene Kuntz said.

“He was trapped under a pile of rubbish, broken boards, lots of mud – stuff that had accumulated into a pile, debris,” Irene Kuntz said. “They started pulling out timbers. They used a huge power saw. And they cut through safely and got the dog out. He’s lying in my house right now. He has a cut on his front leg, and he’s still very tired, but we’re glad he’s safe.”

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