DARRINGTON, WASHINGTON – Rescuers searching for 90 people still missing five days after a massive mudslide in Washington state braced the public Thursday for an impending steep rise in the death toll even as they deflected criticism of the early disaster response.
At least 25 people are known to have died when a rain-drenched hillside collapsed without warning last Saturday, unleashing a wall of mud that engulfed dozens of homes in a river valley near the rural town of Oso, 90 km northeast of Seattle.
Only the first 16 victims recovered and examined by coroners have been formally counted among the dead, but nine more bodies have since been found.
Local fire district chief Travis Hots warned the official death toll will soon climb even more sharply, saying, “In the next 24 to 48 hours, as the medical examiner’s office catches up with the difficult work that they have to do, you’re going to see these numbers increase substantially.”
Snohomish County officials said Wednesday about 90 people remained missing, down from 176, and Hots said Thursday the revised figure was holding. An estimated 180 people lived in the path of the landslide.
Authorities have acknowledged there is little chance of finding any more survivors in the 2.5-sq.-km heap of mud-caked debris left by the landslide, and that the remains of some victims may never be recovered. Everyone who was discovered alive was rescued by helicopter within the first few hours after the landslide, and rescuers have not found further signs of life, officials said.
Still, Hots said a round-the-clock search effort by more than 200 people, who have been painstakingly combing through a disaster site that includes “clay balls the size of ambulances” will press on indefinitely. Rain forecast to last through Friday was expected to slow search efforts.
“If we find just one more person that’s alive, to me, that’s worth it,” he said.
As the scope of the tragedy sank in, many area residents have voiced anger that local officials refused to allow volunteers to join the search for victims immediately after the mudslide, when chances of finding survivors were greatest. While some used their intimate knowledge of the area to sneak into the disaster zone to help, others returned home feeling frustrated and helpless.
“I went the first day but we got road-blocked,” said Calvin Burlingame, a retired lumber mill worker whose nephew is missing. “I’m upset that they did that because they weren’t in full control yet and . . . the community could have done a lot on our own.”
Burlingame, 62, said he understood the risks involved but said it would have been worthwhile: “If we give up something to get something for somebody else, then that’s OK.”
State police spokesman Bob Calkins said conditions were simply too dangerous to allow nonprofessional volunteers into the disaster zone immediately after the slide. Authorities finally agreed Tuesday to start allowing volunteers to join the official rescue teams.
Members of the public were not the only ones with recriminations about how the early response was handled.
Two local politicians, state Rep. Elizabeth Scott and Snohomish County Councilman Ken Klein, told the Seattle Times that county authorities had wasted time by failing to quickly recognize the scope of the disaster and opting to handle it on their own, without seeking more experienced outside help.
The state National Guard’s commanding officer offered to deploy a 50-member search team Saturday, an offer local emergency management officials did not accept until Monday, a spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department said. Spokeswoman Karina Shagren said while county officials did not initially grasp the magnitude of the devastation, there was no room for more personnel at the site because of the dangers of quicksand-like conditions and fears of further slides.
Tom Minor, commander of a search and rescue team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also defended the handling of the situation, saying the first day of any disaster is always marked by a level of confusion and disarray. He called Snohomish County’s response “outstanding.”
He said the hours required to mobilize a distant FEMA and National Guard team means that “we aren’t going to be here on day one.” The FEMA crew was activated Monday, he said.
With spirits dimming as they days wore on, emotions were running raw among loved ones of the dead and missing, and the crews of people searching for them.
Shayne Barco, 37, a search team member from Bellingham who arrived at the site Monday with his trained search dog, a German shepherd named Stratus, said he has labored to keep his emotions pushed to the side while he works.
“It really doesn’t hit you until the day’s over,” he said. “We’re out there digging through people’s lives, doing the best we can to bring closure to some of the families. It’s just take it day by day, chunk by chunk of debris.”
Community members assembled late Wednesday to offer prayers for the missing.
“We know, and most of us, I think, are accepting that many of our people are not going to make it,” Megan Fanning, 41, said at the gathering in nearby Darrington. “But please, we need a miracle. Just one. One little miracle would be wonderful.”