Death toll rises to 8 in Washington state landslide

ARLINGTON, Wash. -- Eight people have been confirmed dead after a mile-wide mudslide swept through houses along a northwestern Washington river on Saturday.

A house is seen destroyed in the mud on Highway 530 near Oso, Wash., on Sunday, March 23, 2014, the day after a major landslide. (Lindsey Wasson/Seattle Times/MCT)

ARLINGTON, Wash. - Eight people have been confirmed dead after a mile-wide mudslide swept through houses along a northwestern Washington river on Saturday.

Hope for rescuing additional survivors in the mucky debris appeared to be fading Sunday, as officials said search efforts turned up one body, but no survivors. Earlier in the day officials said at least 18 people were missing.

"We didn’t see or hear any signs of life out there today," Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire districts 21 and 22, said at a Sunday afternoon news conference. He said workers will continue to search for survivors until dusk Sunday, and the search would resume Monday morning.

"Mother Nature holds the cards here," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Sunday afternoon. He added that the devastation left behind by the Saturday mudslide into a cluster of rural homes along the Stillaguamish River, just east of the small town of Oso, "is just unrelenting and awesome - there really is no stick standing in the path of the slide."

As of Sunday, rescuers had been unable to find the source of voices heard among the mud and wreckage Saturday evening, despite a search that included helicopters and hovercraft, officials said.


Some firefighters waded into a square-mile slurry of mud and became stuck up to their armpits, officials said, needing to be pulled out by rope.

Despite the effort, however, there have been no more residents rescued since seven people were extricated on Saturday, officials said.

"We have families across the state this moment who are wondering about their family members, and the anxiety of that is beyond description," Inslee said. "Every human possibility is being explored here to rescue and find their loved ones."

Among those missing are Reed Miller’s son, Joseph, 47, who he said is mentally ill. Miller, 75, had been standing in the grocery-checkout line in Arlington on Saturday when ambulances began to scream by.

"The grocery lady said there was a big mudslide in Oso, and to call her back when I got home OK," Miller said Sunday. "I never got there. Nope."

His home was among those damaged or destroyed by the mudslide. Officials said up to 30 homes may have been affected.

A steady stream of worried people made their way Sunday to the shelter set up in Arlington.

Caroline Neal was among them. She had come looking for word of her father, Stephen, a plumber who was servicing a hot water tank for a woman who had just moved to Oso.


The woman is now missing, as is the cable guy who was working on her home at the same time. And Neal’s father, Stephen, 52, is nowhere to be found, either.

"He thinks fast on his feet," said Caroline Neal, clutching photos of her father. "If he had any warning, he would have done everything he could to stay safe."

The names of the people killed in the slide haven’t been officially released, but one is former Darrington librarian and school board member Linda McPherson, 69, according to Pete Selvig, a member of the Darrington emergency response team and a retired U.S. Forest Service employee.

McPherson’s husband, Gary "Mac" McPherson, was also injured. His condition was not immediately known.

The couple’s house, and that of their niece and nephew next door, were both destroyed, Selvig said. The younger couple was not at home, but their dog was trapped in the debris, he said.

Rescuers tried to get to the dog after hearing whimpering Saturday night, but had to give up because the mud and debris was moving, said Selvig.

McPherson was branch manager of the Darrington library and served for about 15 years on the school board, said Selvig, who served with her.

"Her name is on the plaque on the new elementary," Selvig said.


McPherson’s daughter, reached by phone, declined to comment.

One volunteer firefighter who stopped working around 11:30 p.m. Saturday said many tragic stories have yet to be told. He watched one rescuer find his own front door, but nothing else - not his home, his wife or his child.

"It’s much worse than everyone’s been saying," said the firefighter, who did not want to be identified. "The slide is about a mile wide. Entire neighborhoods are just gone. When the slide hit the river, it was like a tsunami."

Among the missing are a group of girls who were having a slumber party, said Selvig.

The mudslide, which has blocked an important rural highway as well as the Stillaguamish River, came after an unusually heavy month of rain.

An evacuation order for residents downstream was lifted Sunday morning, but officials warned it could be reinstated. The water was building up behind an artificial dam created by the mudslide and could give way again, officials said.

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene said the community of Darrington, about 12 miles east of the slide, has been "isolated" because the mud destroyed Highway 530, which provides an important route for that community of 1,359 residents to reach Washington’s populous Pacific coast.

Inslee said it wasn’t known when that highway would be restored.


"There is literally not a vertical stick standing in that square mile" of mud, Inslee said. "Everything within that path has been leveled, and that is something I have certainly never seen before."

Inslee’s office issued a declaration of emergency on Saturday night, and he said state officials were in contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to seek emergency funds.

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