ARLINGTON — Hopes dimmed Sunday for finding survivors in the nearly one square mile of muck and debris left by a mudslide that killed at least eight people and demolished dozens of houses.
Officials confirmed eight dead during a community meeting Sunday night in Darrington. Just a few hours earlier, the death toll had stood at four.
Tod Gates, an incident commander, said that as he and other rescuers flew in a helicopter to the Darrington meeting, they spotted the four additional bodies. The dead were not identified Sunday night.
In a news conference Monday morning, emergency officials said they were working off a “soft list” of 108 people who are unaccounted for, though they said the number of actual victims will likely be much lower.
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Darkness and shifting debris forced rescuers Saturday night to abandon efforts to reach voices coming from a buried structure.
By Sunday, they heard no more voices.
“We didn’t see or hear any signs of life out there today,” said Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire Districts 21 and 22, during a Sunday afternoon news conference.
Casualties are likely to rise as the search continues through the wreckage that is all that remains of neighborhoods along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. In addition to destroying 30 or more homes, the slide buried a milelong stretch of Highway 530 under 20 feet or more of mud.
Gov. Jay Inslee warned of grim days ahead during a news conference at Arlington City Hall. “I have a sense we are going to have some hard news here,” he said.
The rain-soaked hillside that slid away Saturday morning was the same one that had partially collapsed in 2006. The area is about 16 miles east of Arlington.
With no positive news forthcoming, relatives of the missing crowded into the Darrington Community Center looking for answers.
Relatives handed photos of missing loved ones to rescue personnel in hopes they might turn up unconscious at a hospital.
Those reportedly missing ranged from Oso-area homeowners to repairmen on work assignments and a group of girls at a slumber party.
Ron Thompson, whose home was destroyed, stopped by the evacuation shelter at Post Middle School in Arlington to find out if his friends turned up alive. “We lost a lot of good kids. I don’t know what else to tell you. It hurts,” he said before driving away.
A 4-month-old baby and her grandmother were also among the missing.
The baby, Sanoah Huestis, lived with her grandparents, Christina and Seth Jefferds. Seth Jefferds, a volunteer firefighter, was not home at the time of the slide and arrived to find his house flattened and his wife and granddaughter missing, said his brother-in-law, Dale Petersen.
“He said it was just like a bulldozer ran over the house,’’ Petersen said.
Although the names of the people killed in the slide were not officially released, 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 were 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 were moving, Selvig said.
McPherson was branch manager of the Darrington library and served for about 15 years on the School Board, said Selvig, who served with her.
He said her approach to the business and challenges of the small rural school district was professional and methodical. She was part of a Darrington contingent that lobbied the state Legislature for funding to rebuild the district’s three aging schools. “Her name is on the plaque on the new elementary,” Selvig said.
Seven people injured in the slide were being treated at area hospitals Sunday.
At Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a 6-month-old baby boy and an 81-year-old man were in critical condition in the intensive-care unit. A 37-year-old man and a 58-year-old man were in serious condition. A 25-year-old woman was in satisfactory condition.
At Cascade Valley Hospital in Arlington, one woman was in satisfactory condition. Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon reported that a 68-year-old man was in stable condition.
Witnesses described a frantic scene when the slide hit Saturday morning.
Neighbors rushed to retrieve a mud-covered baby within moments, said an Arlington woman who was driving by when the catastrophe occurred.
“We thought it was a car accident,” said Sierra Sansaver, of Arlington, who said she was driving to Darrington to find the road was blocked by mud. “Then you realize there’s a house in the middle of the road.”
“We heard screaming from a house 100 yards from us. A whole bunch of men went in there and pulled out a 6-month-old baby,” Sansaver said. Firefighters also were arriving, she said.
“There was mud, household items everywhere, people screaming, crying, running into the rubbish.”
“Everybody was covered in mud. A lady next door who saw what happened, she was giving them blankets to hold the baby in. They got in a car, and left,” said Sansaver.
The infant at Harborview matched that scenario.
In Darrington, a search-and-rescue team of about 20 people was advised Sunday morning to mark dead bodies if they saw any and keep looking for survivors.
Some workers emerged from the meeting bleary-eyed and dispirited.
One volunteer firefighter who had stopped working around 11:30 p.m. Saturday night 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.
They’re in the “missing” category along with many it is feared will eventually be listed as dead.
“It’s much worse than everyone’s been saying,” said the firefighter, who did not want to be named. “The slide is about a mile wide. Entire neighborhoods are just gone. When the slide hit the river, it was like a tsunami.”
By noon on Sunday, the dammed-up Stillaguamish River was starting to break through a hole in the mile-wide mud wall near Oso, releasing some flow downstream. But officials said that was not a cause for alarm.
“It’s not flowing at a rate that causes concern. There is water coming through. They don’t feel it is going to be a catastrophic burst,” said Shari Ireton, spokeswoman for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
Even if the water breaches the blockage, it is unlikely to cause major flooding downstream, said Brent Bower, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
The forecast for the area near Oso looks dry for most of Monday, said Johnny Burg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. Rain could return Monday night and into Tuesday, but Burg said “we’re not forecasting anything heavy” — maybe a tenth of an inch.
Through March 19, Arlington had recorded 7.14 inches of rain for the month — just a couple inches short of the wettest March on record. A flash flood warning remained in effect.
Inslee, who cut short a political trip to Montana to fly back to Washington state, thanked rescuers Sunday, and said he was awed by the destruction he witnessed after flying over the scene.
“The devastation is just unrelenting and awesome. There is no stick standing in the path of the slide,” Inslee said. “But there is another powerful force of nature, and that is empathy and compassion.”
Staff reporters Jim Brunner, Lynn Thompson and Nancy Bartley reported from Seattle. Staff reporters Mike Carter, Mike Lindblom, Mike Baker and Christine Clarridge reported from Arlington. Alexa Vaughn reported from Darrington. News researcher Miyoko Wolf also contributed.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner