The search for survivors of a deadly Washington state mudslide grew Monday to include scores of people who were still unaccounted for as the death toll from the wall of trees, rocks and debris that swept through a rural community rose to at least 14.
In the struggle to find loved ones, family members and neighbors used chain saws and their bare hands to dig through wreckage that was tangled by the mud into broken piles.
Authorities say they still don’t know how many people remain missing since the disaster occurred about 55 miles northeast of Seattle. Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said late Monday that officials were working off a potential list of 176 people, but he stressed that authorities believed that included many duplicate names. But the startling initial length of the list added to the anxieties two days after a mile-wide layer of soft earth crashed onto a cluster of homes at the bottom of a river valley.
“The situation is very grim,” Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said, stressing that authorities are still in rescue mode and are holding out hope. But he noted: “We have not found anyone alive on this pile since Saturday.”
Snohomish County sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said Monday afternoon that search-and-rescue crews discovered an additional six bodies, bringing the number of fatalities to at least 14. The slide critically injured several others.
About 30 houses were destroyed, and the debris blocked a mile-long stretch of state highway near Arlington.
Cory Kuntz and several volunteers worked Monday with chain saws to cut through the roof of his uncle’s house, which was swept about 150 yards from its previous location. Kuntz said his aunt, Linda McPherson, was killed. He and the others pulled out files, his aunt’s wallet and a box filled with pictures and slides.
“When you look at it, you just kind of go in shock, and you kind of go numb,” he said, adding that there were more people out helping Sunday. On Monday, they couldn’t get through roadblocks.
“They are all eager to get down here, but unfortunately they can’t. It just shows how tight this community is,” he said.
Doug Reuwsaat, who grew up in the area and also was helping in the search, said authorities had told people to stay away.
Of the 49 structures in the neighborhood, authorities believe at least 25 were full-time residences.
An overnight search of the debris field turned up no other bodies, Hots said. Monday’s search included aircraft, dogs and heavy equipment.
Frustrations were growing as family members and neighbors waited for official word on the missing and the dead. Elaine Young and her neighbors uncovered several bodies Sunday and had to contact authorities to get them removed.
They also found a chocolate Labrador named Buddy alive, and helped pull the dog from the rubble, leading her to wonder if other survivors could be out there, desperate for help.
“If we found a dog alive yesterday afternoon that we cut out of a part of a house, doesn’t that seem that maybe somebody could be stuck up under part of a house and be alive, too?” asked Young, whose home survived the slide but was on the edge of the devastation.
Authorities believe Saturday’s slide was caused by recent heavy rains that made the terrain unstable.
The threat of potential flash floods or another landslide also loomed over rescuers. On Monday, some crews had to pull back because of concern that a hillside could shift.