Death toll rises to 24; no end in sight to grim search

People gather Tuesday at a candlelight vigil in Arlington, Wash., for the victims of a massive mudslide that struck the nearby community of Oso on Saturday.

People gather Tuesday at a candlelight vigil in Arlington, Wash., for the victims of a massive mudslide that struck the nearby community of Oso on Saturday. AP photo by Ted S. Warren

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ARLINGTON, Wash., — The confirmed death toll has now climbed to 24 after a massive landslide near Oso on Saturday.

On Tuesday, rescuers had recovered 16 victims and located the remains of at least eight more people in the debris field, Arlington Rural Fire Chief Travis Hots told reporters at an evening press conference.

Local, state and federal resources are focused now on looking for human life and finding others still trapped inside the square-mile field of devastation. No survivors have been rescued since Saturday, when the soggy hill collapsed and buried the rural Steelhead Drive neighborhood.

Roughly a dozen survivors remain hospitalized from their injuries.

Pools of water in the debris are up to six feet deep, with conditions worsened by a steady stream of rainfall Tuesday, said Hots, who appeared weary. In spots, it's been like quicksand. In others, slick like ice.

"Now, it's just a slurry again," he said.

More than 200 trained rescuers are expected to be at work by daybreak Wednesday. Dogs are being used to locate bodies. The dogs, plus "bare hands and shovels," have been the most effective ways of finding people, Hots said.

That's different from the scene on Saturday, when crews in Snohomish County rescue helicopters were able to pluck people out to safety.

One rescue worker was taken to a hospital Tuesday after being hit in the head by debris kicked up by the blades of a helicopter. The worker had minor injuries, according to the sheriff's office.

In addition to emergency shelters, an assistance center was being set up on Tuesday for the families of the known dead. Officials have not been releasing the names of those recovered in an effort to first scientifically confirm identities and notify families.

State and federal rescue and recovery teams were welcomed by weary crews who have been working at the slide for days, Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary said.

"They're there. They're on site. They're going to stay up there," he said.

911 calls

The neighbors' house was gone. The road was gone. Everything was gone: everything but the river, and the mud and the screams.

The first few 911 calls are haunting, as neighbors along Highway 530 called in for help during the first few moments. The 911 audio recordings were released as public records Tuesday afternoon.

The first caller says, "There is a creek that has washed out 530. There is the roof of a house on 530."

Another: "There's power lines down ... holy crap. There's at least two, three miles of 530. It's blocked completely."

Another: "I don't think there's anybody in what's left of this barn."

"I can't believe this. Oh my God. We need everybody."

Some neighbors thought it was an earthquake. Hundreds of trees flowed by. A woman saw a car get buried.

"There are people here screaming for help," another woman told dispatchers. "They're in the middle of the mud. Their house is not a house."

A man in the 29400 block of the highway saw multiple houses get taken out, including his next-door neighbor's place.

"It's collapsed on several of them, and they're trapped," he said. "I can hear them tapping underneath and yelling at us. There's several of them in a group under debris and the roof of the house."

A long road ahead

Searching through the debris is an effort that likely will take weeks, but "we are going to do our very best to get everybody out of there," Hots said.

Washington Military Department spokeswoman Karina Shagren said the National Guard contingent consists of a search-and-extraction team of 50 people and a fatality search-and-recovery team of 11. The National Guard brought heavy equipment and the teams are skilled in complicated structural rescue and mortuary-related work.

"We are bringing all the resources we have to the horrific situation," said Trenary, the county sheriff. "I am proud of my folks. We are working on behalf of the families that are missing loved ones."

Crews still were holding out hope of finding more survivors, said John Pennington, who heads Snohomish County's Department of Emergency Management.

Some tentative work has begun into determining exactly why the hillside cut loose Saturday. Among other things, officials are looking for a connection to a small earthquake in the area on March 10, Pennington said.

Neighbors there have long been aware of the possibility of slides, Pennington said. That said, there was no way to know what was coming on Saturday.

"I want to know why this slide went, too," he said.

Officials are continuing to investigate reports of missing people, determining who is actually lost. They expect the list, at one point reported as containing 176 names, to shrink substantially as the days pass.

The sheriff's office was providing detectives who are experts on missing-persons cases to help focus the effort.

"Healing has to take place. Grieving has to take place. And that's community wide," Pennington said.

New technology also was being used to "ping" the cellphones of people missing in the debris to try to give searchers more detailed information about their locations.

Emergency officials thanked everyone hoping to help in the search, but they decided to rely on local men and women. Part of the decision involved logistics and the dangerous conditions, Hots said. The local volunteers have special skills, training and knowledge of the terrain.

He visited some of his crews at the site on Tuesday.

"It is just unimaginable the conditions out there that they're dealing with ... It is just amazing the magnitude and the force of what this slide has done," Hots said.

Special rescue teams

A team of about 120 firefighters from throughout Snohomish County train together year-round on technical rescues involving collapsed buildings and confined spaces.

Many of the crews have been deployed to Oso the past few days, including Monroe firefighters who are highly trained in technical rescues, said Erik Liddiatt, a Monroe fire battalion chief.

The crews are equipped with special equipment to find people in "voids" — air pockets underneath rubble where it is possible to survive. They use metal cylinders and inflatable air bags to prop up collapsed buildings, said Monroe Fire Chief Jamie Silva.

They have small cameras and audio-recording devices that can slip into tight spaces to look and listen for life, "in all directions, up, down, side to side," Liddiatt said.

The county team always believed the disaster they were training for would be an earthquake. That's what emergency-management folks had predicted for decades.

"None of us have ever been to a call like this. It's what we talk about, what we train for, if we have a big earthquake, we always thought that was going to be our big emergency," he said. "I don't think you can prepare for it. I think once you're on scene you have a clear direction for what your task is."

The crews are trained to search through debris systematically to avoid confusion, Liddiatt said.

People can live for a few days in an air pocket, he said, but the weight of the debris in the slide could count against them.

The team's equipment includes heavy-duty saws, thermal-imaging cameras, air-quality testing kits and respirators, Silva said.

They train together in part because no one agency has all the resources needed for a major emergency, Silva said.

"We rely on our neighbors. We do the same thing with tech rescue and haz-mat," Silva said. "When the big event happens, we're going to work there, like now."

Darrington reconnected

Internet and phone service were restored to Darrington on Monday night. Facebook and social media buzzed with comments from people upset by the slow pace of recovery efforts, and from being kept out of the debris field.

Jeff Anderson, who owns and operates Three Rivers Cutting in Darrington, volunteered his entire 22-man-strong workforce, and his fleet of five front and backhoe shovels, and three feller bunchers, to work at the recovery site. But Anderson said he's only been able to get a small fraction of the equipment and operators to where they're needed.

"The clock is ticking and we need heavy equipment down there to pick up trees and buildings," Anderson said. "Everything they've called and asked for we have."

Anderson said he's not sure who's at fault.

"I don't want to blame (Darrington mayor) Danny (Rankin) but it's become too political. It's a communication thing," Anderson said Tuesday night. "Two days ago we were talking about this and I'm still trying to get my crew to the site. We're not getting any answers."

It's not just getting equipment to the site that's become a problem. Anderson said that Sheriff's officers have threatened volunteers with tickets for parking near the site.

"All the bodies that have been recovered have been recovered by us, by Oso loggers," Anderson said. "They're not letting locals get in there to help. I understand it's a safety thing, but it's frustrating."

For three days the townsfolk snuck onto the debris field to search for friends and loved ones, defying government warnings to stay clear of the treacherous terrain.

On Tuesday 90 people signed up as volunteers, and some were invited to join the search.

Teams of volunteers were paired with firefighters whose job was to help look out for their safety.

Rain and road conditions proved to be challenging. Nearly a half an inch of rain fell on Tuesday, bringing the total so far this month to 16 inches.

Dayn Brunner was among the searchers. His sister, Summer Raffo, 36, is among the missing.

The carnage is hard to comprehend, the Tulalip police officer said. Cars were crushed into balls of metal the size of washing machines.

It was hard to spot clues, he said, because everything seems to be the same muddy hue.

Brunner helped with the sifting, lifting boards from homes that had been reduced to splinters so the rescue dogs could do their job.

For Brunner it was more than a search for bodies. He was looking for memories, too.

His team salvaged a wedding dress, a diploma and a photo album.

"Your life is your memories," he said.

Meanwhile, the town of 4,000 has its main road to jobs, hospitals and the rest of "down below" cut off indefinitely. There were mixed reports about alternate access along the Mountain Loop Highway. Crews with graders and snowplows were clearing snow from the route, which links to Granite Falls. The road could reopen Thursday, according to the state.

Help pours in

Fundraisers are being held at schools, grocery stores, hospitals and other groups. Many are turning to Facebook and other social media sites to share thoughts and concerns.

The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians on Tuesday donated $100,000 to help, Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert said.

The Tulalip Tribes donated $100,000 to the American Red Cross of Snohomish County to assist with shelter, food and basic needs for the survivors and families, and $50,000 to a victims' fund administered by the Cascade Valley Hospital Health Foundation.

"We share our deep condolences with everyone affected by this tragedy, which is heartfelt throughout our community. We hope this donation will aid people as they grieve and work to rebuild their lives," Tribal Chairman Mel Sheldon said.

United Way of Snohomish County has set up a Disaster Recovery Fund for Mudslide Relief, with $25,000 from its endowment and $50,000 from JPMorgan Chase.

Survivors and families

Officials asked that people still use the special number that has been set up — 425-388-5088 — if they are trying to find loved ones, or want to report someone missing, or to ask about temporary shelter. There also is an email address: demcallcenter@snoco.org. As the week wears on, the call center will have fewer hours and will become a recorded tipline rather than being answered by volunteers, Pennington said.

A hotline also been set up for everyone who needs counseling: 800-584-3578.

On Tuesday morning, 6-month-old Duke Suddarth remained in critical condition in the intensive care unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. His mother, Amanda Skorjanc, 25, was in satisfactory condition.

Three others injured in the slide remained in intensive care. Two men, 81 and 37, were reported in serious condition, but improving. A 37-year-old was reported in serious condition. One patient also remained in stable condition at the hospital in Arlington, and others remain at hospitals in Snohomish and Skagit counties.

Timothy G. Ward, 58, a fire commissioner in Oso and Boeing worker, also was listed in serious condition.

Co-workers said his wife, Brandy, was among the missing. Their home was swept away in the mudslide.

The response from Arlington and surrounding areas so far has shown "a city and a community at its absolute best," Snohomish County Executive John Lovick told reporters on Tuesday.

The Herald is updating this story on Twitter. Herald reporters Jerry Cornfield, Bill Sheets, Scott North and others contributed to this story.

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