Death toll now 8 in Oso slide; rescue efforts ongoing

ARLINGTON — Five bodies pulled from the Oso mudslide on Sunday afternoon brought the death toll to eight. Others have been found, but are being left in place until daybreak.

Officials haven’t given up hope of finding more survivors, but the sheer devastation — covering a square mile — points to the possibility of this becoming one of the biggest disasters ever in Snohomish County.

“We’re going to have some hard news,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at an afternoon press conference.

On Sunday, word of the missing and dead started to spread.

The slide-scarred hillside north of the river broke free about 10:45 a.m. Saturday, burying Steelhead Drive and E. Steelhead Drive neighborhoods. Seven people have been found dead at the scene, and eight others were taken to hospitals, where one later died.

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

“It’s still an active search and rescue, and not a recovery mission,” Rural Arlington Fire Department Chief Travis Hots said.

Rhonda and Frank Cook, of Darrington, who are former firefighters and EMTs, had been helping look for survivors since 6 a.m.

“Everybody knows someone out here who needs help or died,” Rhonda Cook said.

About 100 yards away from a destroyed house with a fresh-looking American flag still flying on its roof, volunteers searched through trees and wreckage for bodies. When somebody was found, a helicopter would send down a rope and pull the body up.

Cory and Julie Kuntz left their home, the one with the flag, yesterday morning with their family to go to their son’s baseball game. They left just in time, they said.

Friends were helping the family go through and salvage some belongings.

Water was rising behind their house all day, and the only way anyone could get anywhere was by walking on fallen trees, buried cars and other rubble. A step into the deep slurry meant sinking or getting stuck.

The bodies were found after geologists determined it was safe to begin a ground search. Late Sunday morning, dozens of rescuers fanned out over the debris field in what proved a futile exercise.

“We didn’t see any signs of life out there,” Hots said.

One of the bodies was found lodged in the mud around noon. Officials would not say whether it was a man, woman or child.

There was no word whether the person was one of 18 reported missing, or someone who may have been in a car buried by the slide.

The county assessor’s office lists 22 homes and vacation cabins along Steelhead Drive and E. Steelhead Drive, the neighborhood hardest hit by the slide. At least 15 of those addresses appear to be for homes that are occupied year-round by their owners.

Another road, 312th Street NE, was also listed in the eastern lobe of the slide zone, according to a county emergency response map. At least three homes were in that area.

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.

Reed Miller, 75, a retired mill worker, spent Saturday night in an American Red Cross shelter in Arlington, fearing that his son, who has mental illness, was among the dead.

Miller went grocery shopping in Arlington early Saturday morning while his son Joseph, 47, stayed home in their double-wide motorhome on Steelhead Drive.

Joseph Miller was expecting to find out in the next few days if he was going to get an apartment in Darrington. Miller also said he was worried about his neighbors and their granddaughter, who his grandson used to play with when he would visit.

He saw aerial photos of the neighborhood and said his home of 22 years was destroyed. Cellphone calls to his son went unanswered.

“It was all torn up,” he said. “It didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before. All I have now is a destroyed lot.”

Meanwhile, water that’s been building up behind a wall of mud was finding its way through and back into the North Fork Stillaguamish River channel.

“There is absolutely no catastrophic failure risk,” Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said.

From the air, authorities saw that the water was carving its way through the debris in two places. They later lifted the evacuation advisory.

Even so, people who live in the river’s flood plain from Oso to Stanwood are asked to remain aware of river conditions. At a press conference Sunday afternoon, political leaders shared sympathy for Oso, which has about 200 residents, and the people who have lost their loved ones and their homes.

“Today, Oso is the heart of the state of Washington,” Inslee said. Earlier, he assessed the situation from a helicopter.

“There really is no stick standing in the path of the slide,” he said. Flooding behind the dam had inundated some houses and barns, and by afternoon, had backed up about two miles.

“You can see there are fingers getting through the debris field,” he said.

Sunday was filled with worry for Barbara Welsh of Arlington. Her husband, William, 66, was among the missing.

Welsh, who is an electrician, and a friend were planning to install a hot water heater at a home in the Steelhead Drive neighborhood that was wiped out by Saturday’s deadly mudslide.

“He’s a Vietnam veteran,” Barbara Welsh said. “He survived that. I hope he can survive this.”

She’s not heard from him since Saturday morning and was being comforted by family in downtown Arlington on Sunday morning.

“We hope that one of the voices in the wilderness will be his,” said Bill Welsh’s niece, Tammy Oommen.

Efforts to find someone yelling for help from a house on the Darrington side of the landslide were called off Saturday night. Deep, unstable mud from the 1-square-mile slide made continuing efforts unsafe for rescuers. And when they approached the buried house, they no longer heard signs of life, Hots said.

A number was 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.

That number of people still missing is unclear.

People driving on Highway 530 may also have been washed away or buried in the slide. Brunner said that his sister, Summer Raffo, is missing, according to a Seattle television station’s report. He said Raffo, 36, was driving to a job east of Arlington about the time the mudslide occurred, and that she never showed up.

Among the dead is the wife of an Oso firefighter. No further information was available.

Children are among the missing. Darrington schools announced they would be closed Monday; bus routes were being changed in the nearby Arlington district. Both districts serve the Oso area.

Amid all the grim news Sunday came stories of dramatic rescues in the hours after the Saturday slide.

Rescue helicopters, two from the county, one from the U.S. Navy, plucked at least 18 people out of the muck. One was a boy, just 3 or 4, who was stuck up to his waist. All of those victims were in the south edge of the mudslide area. Many appeared shellshocked.

The SnoHawk helicopters from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office rescued 11 people, including eight by hoist. A Navy helicopter pulled out seven or eight more.

As luck would have it, the county helicopters were preparing for a training mission Saturday morning and crews were ready to go when the mudslide was reported. That saved precious time, officials said. The rescue helicopters scooped up the injured and brought them to a field nearby. They were then flown by Airlift Northwest helicopters to the hospital.

“They call it the golden hour — that first hour” after a catastrophe, sheriff’s office chief pilot Bill Quistorf said. “It was very good timing.”

Airlift Northwest, which has a base in Arlington, flew five of the slide victims to Harborview Medical Center. On Sunday evening, the hospital said a 6-month-old boy was still listed in critical condition in the intensive care unit; an 81-year-old man was also listed as critical. Two men, 37 and 58, were listed in serious condition, and a 25-year-old woman was listed in satisfactory condition.

The neighborhood around Steelhead Drive was hardest hit. Homes simply vanished.

“It basically is just a field of sediment of sand and silt,” Quistorf said. “That’s all you see is layers of it.”

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.

Inslee declared the Oso slide a disaster area. He plans to pursue a federal disaster declaration soon.

Sunday brought a somber search. There were no obvious signs of life. More than 100 rescuers were on the ground or in the air.

On Saturday, when the threat of flooding was at its worst, police gave Paul and Keenan Kimball 10 minutes to evacuate their Oso home. It was just enough time to gather their dogs and cat. They stayed the night in a stable outside of Arlington.

They dropped by the press conference outside Arlington Police Department on Sunday to get an update, hoping to talk to an engineer or anyone would could talk to them about their safety concerns and the slide’s cause.

Keenan worries that their home, 18 feet from the riverbank, will be taken out by flooding. On Friday, the river was at flood stage; on Saturday, it was eerily low.

“It’s like when you see a tidal wave recede,” she said. “It’s never that low.”

Their friend Julia Miller of Darrington was driving home from Arlington around 10:30 a.m. Saturday and missed being caught up in the slide by a few minutes.

Had she not made a stop for fast food, she likely would have been another victim, she said.

“McDonald’s saved my life,” she said. “You aren’t going to hear that very often.”

In Oso, locals gathered around a bridge off Whitman Road about a mile south of the slide, wondering about friends they knew upstream.

They watched a disoriented steelhead try to make its way upstream through the low, choked flow. The river was a favorite fishing spot for author Zane Grey, who wrote stories of the American frontier.

Pieces of people’s lives also trickled by: a board from a house, a chunk of plastic, a golden Christmas ornament.

Herald reporters Bill Sheets, Chris Winters and Scott North contributed to this story. Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

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