14 Dead in US Mudslide; Search Continues - The New Indian Express

14 Dead in US Mudslide; Search Continues

Published: 25th March 2014 08:33 AM

Last Updated: 25th March 2014 08:33 AM

The search for survivors of a deadly mudslide in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington grew Monday to include more than 100 people who are still unaccounted for, as the death toll from the wall of trees, rocks and debris that swept through a rural community rose to at least 14.

In the struggle to find loved ones, family members and neighbors used chain saws and their bare hands to pick through wreckage that was tangled by the mud into piles of filthy debris.

Authorities said they were looking for more than 100 people who had not been heard from since the disaster about 55 miles (90 kilometers) northeast of Seattle. They predicted that the number of missing would decline as more people are found to be safe. But the startling initial length of the list added to the anxieties two days after a layer of soft earth a mile (1.6 kilometers) wide crashed onto a cluster of homes at the bottom of a river valley.

"The situation is very grim," Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said, stressing that authorities are still in rescue mode and are holding out hope. But he noted: "We have not found anyone alive on this pile since Saturday."

Snohomish County sheriff's spokeswoman Shari Ireton said Monday afternoon that search and rescue crews discovered an additional six bodies, bringing the number of fatalities to at least 14.

About 30 houses were destroyed, and the debris blocked a mile(1.6-kilometer)-long stretch of state highway near Arlington.

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said the list of 108 names included construction workers who were working in the area and people just driving by. But, he cautioned, it does not necessarily mean there are dozens of additional fatalities.

"It's a soft 108," Pennington said, explaining that the number would almost certainly fall as people are slowly located.

Among the injured were a mother and her baby. Amanda Skorjanc, 25, was in satisfactory condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, spokeswoman Susan Gregg said. Her son, 22-week-old Duke Suddarth, remained in critical condition and was improving, Gregg said. Three other men were in serious condition.

Cory Kuntz and several volunteers worked on Monday with chain saws to cut through the roof of his uncle's house, which was swept about 150 yards (137 meters) from its 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.

The mudslide struck Saturday morning, a time when most people are at home. Of the 49 structures in the neighborhood, authorities believe at least 25 were full-time residences.

Frustrations were growing as family members and neighbors waited for official word on the missing and the dead. Elaine Young and her neighbors uncovered several bodies Sunday and had to contact authorities to get them removed.

They also found a chocolate Labrador named Buddy alive, and helped pull the dog from the rubble, leading her to wonder if other survivors could be out there, desperate for help.

"If we found a dog alive yesterday afternoon that we cut out of a part of a house, doesn't that seem that maybe somebody could be stuck up under part of a house and be alive too?" asked Young, whose home survived the slide but was on the edge of the devastation.

Authorities believe Saturday's slide was caused by recent heavy rains that made the terrain unstable.

Retired firefighter Gail Moffett said she knows about 25 people who are missing, including entire families with young children.

"It's safe to say I'll know everyone affected or who they are," Moffett said. "There's so much pain going on in the community right now."

The spirits of search-and-rescue teams were raised late Saturday when they heard cries for help from the flotsam of trees, dirt and shattered wood. But no one else has been found alive.

Three people were confirmed dead on Saturday. By late Sunday, the number of fatalities had risen to eight.

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.

Frequent, heavy rain and steep geography make the area prone to landslides. Less than a decade ago, another slide hit in the same general area.

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee described the scene as "a square mile of total devastation" after flying over the disaster area Sunday. On Monday, President Barack Obama declared an emergency, ordering federal aid for the struggling community and federal agencies to coordinate relief efforts.

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