Nearly three days after a massive landslide tore through a stretch of Washington state, killing at least 14 people and leaving scores unaccounted for, the painful uncertainty left in its wake was joined by fears of fresh dangers.
Snohomish County warned Monday that because of worries about “additional slide activity” in the vicinity, some ground rescue crews were pulled back from the area, while flooding still remained a grave concern.
The landslide occurred Saturday morning, blocking a state highway near Oso, about an hour north of Seattle. It appears to have been caused by ground saturation that was due to heavy rainfall in the area, officials said.
At least 14 people were confirmed dead by Monday evening, a number that could rise – there were 108 names on the list of people reported missing or unaccounted for after the landslide, said John Pennington, director of emergency management for Snohomish County, in a news conference Monday.
“This doesn’t mean there are 108 injuries or 108 fatalities,” he said.
But Pennington added that the timing of the landslide was worrisome. Had it occurred on a weekday at the same time, many people may have been at work; instead, on a Saturday morning, more people were likely to be in their homes.
At least 100 emergency responders fanned out on the ground around the landslide Monday, searching for the missing. Rescuers were using thermal imaging cameras to find people amid the destruction. Search dogs and helicopters were also dispatched.
The slide encompassed an area spanning 1 square mile, and in some places, it was up to 15 feet deep, according to county officials. That depth is causing problems for rescue workers, who have to wade through mud, debris and other wreckage across an area that has “quicksand-like consistency,” according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
Nearly 50 plots of land in the affected area featured some form of structure, Pennington said. That includes a mix of homes, recreational vehicles and a cabin. Nearly half of those lots were occupied by people who lived there full time.
Steven Neal, a self-employed plumber who lives in nearby Darrington, is among those missing. He was in the area hit by the landslide because he was working on a home that someone had just moved into.
“Waiting and not knowing has been really hard on me and my family,” said his son, Ryan Neal, in a phone interview Monday. “It’s been hard on everybody.”
An eyewitness who saw the mudslide “said it happened in about three seconds,” said Neal, 29. “Before he even brought his car to a halt from slamming on the brakes, it was done.”
Harborview Medical Center in Seattle said Monday that five patients were brought there as a result of the landslide. Two of those patients – including a 6-month-old boy – were critically injured.
“It’s safe to say I’ll know everyone affected or who they are,” Gail Moffett, a retired firefighter, told the Associated Press. “There’s so much pain going on in the community right now.”
A state of emergency has been declared after the landslide. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had pledged to provide immediate federal assistance. The U.S. Transportation Department said it will make $1 million in relief funds available to help.
The slide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, which is continuing to back up, officials said. Authorities said Monday at least seven homes are now flooded, and more flooding is expected.
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.