OSO, Wash. (AP) — First there was a “whoosh.” Elaine Young said she thought it might be a chimney fire, a rush of air that lasted about 45 seconds. But when she stepped outside there was ominous silence. Something felt very, very wrong.
And then she saw it. Behind the house, a suffocating wall of heavy mud had crashed through the neighborhood.
Dark and sticky, the mile-long flow Saturday heaved houses off their foundations, toppled trees and left a gaping cavity on what had been a tree-covered hillside. In the frantic rescue, searchers spotted mud-covered survivors by the whites of their waving palms.
Now, days into the search, the scale of the mudslide’s devastation in a rural village north of Seattle is becoming apparent. At least 14 people are confirmed dead, dozens more are thought to be unaccounted for or missing, and about 30 homes are destroyed.
“We found a guy right here,” shouted a rescuer Monday afternoon behind Young’s home, after a golden retriever search dog found a corpse pinned under a pile of fallen trees. Searchers put a bag over the body, tied an orange ribbon on a branch to mark the site, and the crew moved on.
It had been stormy for weeks, but warm sunshine offered a false sense of peace Saturday morning as weekend visitors settled into their vacation homes and locals slept in. Then came “a giant slump,” said David Montgomery, an earth and space sciences professor at the University of Washington, describing the deep-seated slide resulting from long-term, heavy rainfall.
A scientist who documented the landslide conditions on the hillside that buckled had warned in a 1999 report filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure,” The Seattle Times reported late Monday.
That report was written by geomorphologist Daniel J. Miller and his wife, Lynne Rodgers Miller, The Times said (http://is.gd/yodBQx). “We’ve known it would happen at some point,” Daniel Miller told the newspaper.
Snohomish County Executive John Lovick and Public Works Director Steve Thomsen said Monday night they were not aware of the 1999 report. “A slide of this magnitude is very difficult to predict,” Thomsen told The Times. “There was no indication, no indication at all.”
At a news conference in the Netherlands on Tuesday, President Barack Obama asked Americans to send their thoughts and prayers to Washington state as search operations continue. The president called Washington Gov. Jay Inslee early Tuesday, said Jaime Smith, an Inslee spokeswoman.
Within hours of the mudslide, emergency crews were searching for life in a post-apocalyptic scene, dodging chunks of splintered birch trunks, half-buried pickup trucks and growing pools of water from the now-blocked Stillaguamish River.
Ed Hrivnak, who was co-piloting an aircraft that was first to arrive at the scene, said a lot of the houses weren’t buried. When they got hit, “the houses exploded.” He said cars were crushed into little pieces, their tires the only signs that they had been vehicles.
He said he saw people so thoroughly covered in mud that searchers could only spot them by the whites of their waving palms. His helicopter rescued eight people, including a 4-year-old boy, who was up to his knees in concrete-like compressed mud.
The mud was so sticky, the rescuers were worried about getting stuck so the helicopter hovered about a foot away and the crew chief tried to pull him out. “He was suctioned in that mud so much that his pants came off,” Hrivnak said.
The boy was taken to a hospital and was reunited with his mom. Hrivnak said the boy’s father and three siblings are still missing.
Friends and families immediately launched their own rescue missions.
Elaine and her husband, Don Young, picking their way through the devastation, heard tapping, a steady beat. They got closer and realized it was coming from their neighbors’ buckled home.
Trapped in an air pocket, Gary “Mac” McPherson, 78, was banging away for help with a loose stick. The Youngs managed to pull him out, but family members said his wife, Linda McPherson, 69, a former librarian and school board member, did not survive.
Rescuers racing in fire trucks and ambulances screeched to a stop at the edge of the mile-square wasteland. Somewhere, someone was crying for help. When a team of firefighters waded chest-deep into the mud, they had to be rescued themselves, and the ground search was suspended overnight Saturday, with the death toll at three.
On Sunday, after geologists deemed the area stable enough to re-enter, another five bodies were found. By Monday, when another six corpses were located, exhaustion and despair were overtaking the early adrenaline and alarm.
Nichole Webb Rivera frantically texted her two adult sons, her daughter and her daughter’s fiance in the area to make sure they were OK. She heard back from her sons, but nothing from the other two.
And no one has been able to reach Rivera’s parents, who live in a house along the Stillaguamish River, smack in the middle of where the slide came crashing down. Relatives called around, but the somber reality soon set in.
“We’ve lost four,” said Rivera, who grew up in Darrington, a logging town of about 1,400 people just to the east of the landslide.
Rivera has had no official confirmation from authorities. But when she saw an aerial photograph of Saturday’s landslide, she knew her parents, Thom and Marcy Satterlee, and her daughter, 20-year-old Delaney Webb, and Webb’s fiance didn’t make it out.
“It sounds terribly morbid, but looking at it, I’m resigned,” said Rivera, 39.
An American flag, salvaged unstained from the wreckage, had been draped over a buckled shed. “The situation is very grim,” said Fire Chief Travis Hots, unshaven and with dark circles around his eyes. “We have not found anyone alive on this pile since Saturday.”
Chain saws buzzed as friends and families cut toppled houses open on Monday. Buddy, a large chocolate Labrador, was pulled muddy and cut from under the ruins Sunday after a house was cut open. His owner has not been found.
McPherson, still hospitalized, abruptly a widower, asked his nephew Cory Kuntz to see if he could pull anything out of his home.
A box of slides, some photos, files and his deceased aunt’s wallet piled up. Kuntz glanced at the gap in the roof that his uncle was yanked through. Then he looked out at the confusion of muddy detritus that included the smashed remains of his own home as well.
“When you look at it you just kind of go in shock and you kind of go numb,” Kuntz said.
Gail Moffett, a retired firefighter who lives in Oso and works at the hardware store in Arlington, said she knows about 25 people who are missing. Among them, Moffett said, were entire families, including people with young children.
Moffett said some of the people who are missing were working in the area Saturday morning.
“There’s so much pain going on in the community right now,” she said.
Darlene Elrod stood above the wreckage, scratching her head and just looking and staring in disbelief as she tried to orient herself and point out an entire neighborhood.
“It’s gone,” she said.