Death toll at 14 in Oso slide, dozens still missing

OSO — Fourteen are dead; 176 may be missing

Some lived in the way of the collapsing hill. Others were there by chance.

Armed with a seesawinglist of unconfirmed reports of men, women and children unaccounted for since Saturday’s massive Oso mudslide, rescuers raced Monday to find survivors before the next storm hits Tuesday.

Help is pouring in. It comes in the form of bottled water, tears and prayers, shovels and chain saws. There’s $1 million coming from the federal government, plans to plow through a snowed-in road, to set up phone service, to help a community grieve.

“This community has come together,” said Dave Holmer, Darrington School District superintendent. “It always does in tough times. That’s the way it’s done here. People are not expected to go through this alone.”

The Oso mudslide may soon be known as one of the worst disasters ever in Washington state. It already is the most deadly in modern county history.

As the sun set on the third day of rescue operations, emergency personnel conceded that they expect it to turn into a recovery. But miracles do happen, they said.

Volunteers are working where they can, recovering who they can, from muck as much as 50 feet thick. They watch the crumbly hillside, which threatens to slide again, to decide when it’s too dangerous to stay.

“We have not found anyone alive on this pile since Saturday,” said Travis Hots, chief of the Rural Arlington fire department.

Emergency managers are working through the list of the missing, determining who was just gone, and who is gone forever.

Rescue dogs were being brought in to continue searching the mile-wide debris field that now covers homes and Highway 530. The same was true of Washington National Guard teams trained in rescuing trapped victims.

The North Fork Stillaguamish was buried by tons of debris. As it has before, the river was pushing its way through, rising to near normal levels, easing the downstream threat of a sudden flood.

Searchers continue to hold out hope of rescuing survivors. Helicopters continued to scour the surface from the sky above.

People gathered Monday evening at Arlington United Church to pray for those who are missing, for the families of the deceased, for the searchers, for those who have lost homes, and for the communities of Oso, Darrington and Arlington.

“We’re mourning,” Pastor Jessica Ronhaar said. “As we wait and as we cry out to you, Lord, we pray for your presence. We thank you for communities that come together. We pray for your strength.”

Gov. Jay Inslee visited the scene again Monday, from the ground. And President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration enabling immediate federal assistance to assess and deal with the damage caused by the landslide. The declaration enables the Federal Emergency Management Agency to dispatch an incident team.

Meanwhile, officials of the state’s Emergency Management Division are compiling a damage assessment for FEMA that will determine if those directly affected by the slide will be eligible for federal assistance.

That work cannot be completed until the rescue efforts are concluded, said Karina Shagren, communications director for the Washington Military Department.

FEMA will make its decision based on several factors, including the number of damaged structures and uninsured losses. The loss of life is taken into account but does not necessarily increase the state’s chances of receiving federal assistance, she said.

“Can they count on it?” she said, of those who lost their homes. “I wouldn’t say they can count on it. There is a process in place and our emergency management division has already started on the process.”

Also Monday, the state learned it will receive $1 million from the Federal Highway Administration to cover some of the costs associated with the clearing of Highway 530. Additional federal funds could be provided in the near future depending on the state and federal damage assessments.

Crews worked throughout the night, facing a challenging environment with unsteady, uneven ground, Hots said.

Though the potential number of missing people has now reached triple digits, that is likely to change as more information becomes available, said John Pennington, who heads Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management.

Some reports have been detailed, others have only give a first name of someone they think might live in the area.

Pennington said he expects that number to “decline dramatically” as more information becomes available. Officials are building a database of those names to work from.

“There’s an awful lot of unknowns,” he said. “That’s completely expected. We are going to keep going. People’s lives could be at stake.”

The mudslide debris is about one mile long and 1,000 feet wide, said Steve Thomsen*, who heads the county’s department of public works. The light, loose material could swallow heavy equipment if crews move too quickly, he said.

“It is massive. It is the biggest thing I’ve seen in 30 years,” he said.

Rescuers are focusing their efforts on areas where people are most likely to still be alive. In addition to quicksand-like conditions, they are facing biological hazards in the debris such as sewage and propane tanks.

Rescuers on Monday afternoon pulled back out of fears a second slide was imminent.

That secondary slide turned out to be some sloughing, including trees, but crews were able to move back in under the hillside.

Though the river has begun to carve a new channel through the debris field, water continues to rise upstream. So far, seven homes have flooded.

The slide-scarred hillside north of the river broke free about 10:45 a.m. Saturday, burying the Steelhead Drive and E. Steelhead Drive neighborhood.

Among those who lost their lives was longtime Darrington School Board member Linda McPherson, who retired from the board in 2007.

The Stillaguamish Valley is home to families who have been in the area for three or four generations, or even longer. That includes County Councilman Ken Klein of Arlington, who has seen grief ripple through his church and the elementary school where his son is in the first grade.

“I’m impressed by the love and the care that everyone has had for the people who are impacted,” Klein said. “It’s definitely impacting the entire Stillaguamish Valley.”

A reminder came at Kent Prairie Elementary School, where one boy — a friend of Klein’s son Jackson — remains missing.

There promises to be long-term effects in Darrington, which has been cut off from Highway 530. About half of the people who make their home there use the highway to reach their jobs elsewhere.

“This is going to hit Darrington so hard,” Klein said. “It’s a town that’s already been hit with a loss of industry, through no fault of their own. … They are resilient people who are strong. We need to do everything we can do to help out.”

Reopening the highway will be a priority, he said.

Deputy Executive Mark Ericks said it is difficult for words to capture the enormity of what’s happened.

“This is a mountain slide,” he said.

In some areas, mud and debris are 50 feet thick.

“Because of the composition of the material, it was more like quicksand than it was like dirt,” Ericks said.

That’s made it difficult for emergency workers to survey the area.

“There have been some casualties that have been located that we have not been able to remove because of the unsafe conditions where the remains were located,” Ericks said.

Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper said there were about 30 to 40 people digging from the west Monday.

Trenton Cowles, 36, would soon be one of them. The Mount Vernon man took the day off work, hoping to find a way to help. “It’s right next door to us,” he said. “These are our neighbors.”

Doug Dix, 57, has lived in the last house on Whitman Road since 1984. It’s three houses away from the slide.

“It sounded like two Huey engines, going bad, shredding and crashing.” The noise went on a long time, he said.

Emergency officials said the slide has affected at least 112 properties. On those, 49 had some form of structure, including homes.

Officials believe at least 25 homes were occupied full-time and 10 homes part-time. There were an estimated 13 manufactured homes or trailers in the slide areas as well, Pennington said.

Because the slide hit on a Saturday morning, far more people were at home at the time, creating the higher possibility for casualties than if the slide happened during normal work hours, he said.

The area hit by the Oso mudslide is known to be unstable. In 2006, the same hillside broke away and dammed the river just south of the Steelhead Drive neighborhood. Nobody was hurt that time.

The area has been the target of heavy disaster-mitigation efforts in recent years, include work by the Stillaguamish tribes, Pennington said.

“It was considered very safe,” he said.

A number has been set up — 425-388-5088 — for people who are trying to find loved ones, who want to report someone missing, or ask about temporary shelter. People are urged to stay away from the scene and the river downstream. All downstream bridges also are being monitored.

Darrington was remarkably prepared, but people there are still struggling and isolated, Pennington said. Officials on Monday were working to establish an AM radio station to get people updates. Land lines there have not been working fully since the slide, and cellphone service is spotty, especially as people try to communicate with friends and family.

Highway 530 is closed at the Oso Fire Department on the west side of the slide, and at Little French Creek Road (milepost 42) on the east side of the slide. It will remain closed indefinitely; officials are working on a possible bypass through Granite Falls. That could take until Friday to get open.

Crews are using snow blowers and graders to try to clear the road of snow, but there is no estimate as to when that road will be open to traffic, transportation officials said.

Meanwhile, Frontier was exploring the possibility of hard-wiring four satellite internet connections for businesses, the clinic and town hall in Darrington. The idea would be to provide wi-fi connection in parking lots as hotspots. Frontier also is exploring a way to connect a land line past the slide along Seattle City Light power lines, although there are safety concerns.

Six victims of the slide were admitted to Cascade Valley Hospital in Arlington, hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Egger said. One person on Monday remained there in stable condition, she said. Details about that person were not being released due to privacy laws.

By Monday afternoon, four of the injured had been released, and one person transferred to another hospital to be closer to family.

Skagit Valley Hospital received two patients from the mudslide on Saturday. One was airlifted to Harborview. The other was listed in satisfactory condition on Monday afternoon.

Harborview Medical Center in Seattle continued to care for five people seriously injured in the slide.

On Monday morning, 6-month-old Duke Suddarth remained in critical condition in the intensive care unit. His mother, Amanda Skorjanc, 25, was in satisfactory condition.

Their family released a statement: “We wish to express our heartfelt support to our neighbors and friends who are suffering as a result of the recent landslide. We send our prayers and hope to the entire community that has been affected by this tragedy.”

Two other men still at Harborview, were an 81-year-old in critical condition, and a 37-year-old in serious condition.

Also at Harborview was Timothy G. Ward, 58, listed in serious condition. The Boeing worker was scheduled for surgery Monday.

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

Rob Thoms works with Ward among a small group in aircraft systems training for the Boeing 787. Ward’s wife often sent baked goods, including cookies and pound cake, with him to share with co-workers.

“She was the team mom, that’s for sure,” Thoms said.

Ward served in the Army where he flew helicopters and is the lead for their Boeing work group, Thoms said.

Ward’s co-workers were eager for him to recover.

“We are all extremely hopeful for any good news that comes out of this,” Thoms said.

They’re also looking for the family’s five dogs — all German shorthair pointers. Two of the dogs are named Sampson and Delilah. They were microchipped.

Follow us on Twitter for updates as this story develops: @EverettHerald.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

Email if you’re safe

A new email has been set up in addition to the hotline. People with missing loved ones should send info to DEMcallcenter@snoco.org. They should provide as much information as possible, including pictures and descriptions of identifying features, such as tattoos.

Correction, March 25, 2014: Steve Thomsen’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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