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'It's gone.' Community copes with deadly mudslide

Wash. Mudslide Death Toll Reaches 14
BY P. SOLOMON BANDA AND MARTHA MENDOZA
ASSOCIATED PRESS

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."

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 concretelike 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.

---

Mendoza reported from San Jose, Calif. Associated Press writers Phuong Le and Donna Gordon Blankinship in Seattle and Lisa Baumann in Arlington, Wash., contributed to this report.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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sylvabugg2 March 25 2014 at 8:19 AM

There's really nothing one can say to these people to make it better. It's just so sudden and horrifying. Prayers going out to those who lost loved ones. Give them strength for what they must endure.

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lmfsocialevents March 25 2014 at 9:24 AM

May God give you all strength and peace.

Flag Reply +7 rate up
1 reply
Tom lmfsocialevents March 25 2014 at 9:37 AM

At last a message of worth out of all this sadness. There is no volume of words to express the sadness of and for this small community.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
ForWhatItIsNow March 25 2014 at 9:26 AM

This was my home, where I played as a kid where my friends lived.. Sadness and rememberance of Mt. St. Helen's and what it did to those I grew up with and loved... natural disasters in WA are very common and it's sad when builder's and gov officials are specfically told not to build in unstable zones like this but for both money talked not danger to others and seeing the gov officials not accept they are part to blame is appauling and typical for the Great US Gov officials (Joke)

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stacielouwho March 25 2014 at 11:21 AM

James, you would have to experience such a thing to know, about "kind od shock". I hope you never do. Our family has & it happens

Flag Reply +1 rate up
Joan March 25 2014 at 11:19 AM

This is a terrible tragedy. My thoughts and prayers are w/ the friends and families of the known victims, the missing and the survivors.

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Ed March 25 2014 at 9:30 AM

There are many areas in the Pacific Northwest that have similar conditions...and because local officials approve housing to be built in the path of these areas, and on unstable hillsides, or close to rivers downstream from earthen dams, things like this can happen. Instead of giving the report to the Corps of Engineers, maybe it should have gone to the Snohomish county officials or to the town officials so they could have stopped the building below the hillside that sloughed off.

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1 reply
Jeff Ed March 25 2014 at 10:52 AM

Apparently the local paper had an article not long ago that this hill was a ticking time bomb.
All the factors that cause this type of incident were there. Sate and local officials need to be questioned about why this was said to be a safe place to live or vacation.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
1 reply
annette.testa Jeff March 25 2014 at 1:19 PM

Seattle is a ticking timebomb with Mt. Rainier an active volcano and the city being constructed on top of a major faultline. There have been large mudslides on Magnolia Bluff. Olympia is a disaster waiting to happen with the water encroaching on the downtown area and the Nisqually fault not far. There are really no "safe" places.

I doubt if anyone will evacuate Seattle for fear of a natural disaster, the inevitability of which is much more documented than anything concerning Oso.

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Candace March 25 2014 at 9:35 AM

I used to work in arlington...oso is sucha beautiful area...feel for the people in pain right now..

Flag Reply +6 rate up
christine March 25 2014 at 9:44 AM

The only thing now that we can do to help, is to send money and labor, grief counselors and mobile places to provide temporary shelter. We can offer words of support and prayers but that will help very little to someone in the midst of losing a loved one or multiple loved ones.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
maxcranium March 25 2014 at 11:22 AM

It seems the only safe place to live is in the desert.
Maybe we should take it back from the Indians?
Todays translation = Native Americans...

Flag Reply +1 rate up
3 replies
Bodacious Beauty March 25 2014 at 11:19 AM

My prayers to all involved in this tragedy.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
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