14 Dead in US Mudslide While Search Grows


 
 

| Tuesday, March 25, 2014


The death toll from the mudslide that swept through a rural US community has reached 14 as the search for survivors grows to include scores still unaccounted for.

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

The list of potentially missing people topped 176 following Saturday's disaster about 55 miles north east of Seattle, Washington. But Snohomish County emergency management director John Pennington stressed that authorities believed the number included many duplicate names.

"The 176, I believe very strongly is not a number we're going to see in fatalities. I believe it's going to drop dramatically," he said.

The number of those possibly missing grew dramatically from an estimated 108 earlier. But Mr Pennington said the list was compiled from information provided by the public and officials were trying to cross off reports that probably described the same person.

The list included building workers in the area and people driving by. Authorities also predicted that the number of missing would decline as more people were found to be safe.

But the lack of definitive information two days after the massive mile-wide slide destroyed a cluster of homes at the bottom of a river valley increased anxieties.

"The situation is very grim," county fire district chief Travis Hots said. He said authorities were still in rescue mode and holding out hope, but noted: "We have not found anyone alive on this pile since Saturday."

Snohomish County sheriff's spokeswoman Shari Ireton said search and rescue crews discovered an additional six bodies, bringing the number of fatalities to at least 14. The slide critically injured several others.

About two dozen homes were flattened and the debris blocked a mile-long stretch of state highway near Arlington.

Among the injured were a mother and her baby. Amanda Skorjanc, 25, was in a satisfactory condition in hospital in Seattle, spokeswoman Susan Gregg said. Her son, 22-week-old Duke Suddarth, remained in a critical condition and was improving. Three other men are in a 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 from its location. Mr 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 on Saturday morning, a time when most people are at home. Of the 49 buildings in the neighbourhood, authorities believe at least 25 were full-time homes.

The search included aircraft, dogs and heavy equipment.

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

They also found a chocolate labrador named Buddy alive, 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?" Ms Young, whose home survived the slide but was on the edge of the devastation, said yesterday.

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

Retired firefighter Gail Moffett said she knew of about 25 people missing, including entire families with young children. "It's safe to say I'll know everyone affected or who they are," she said. "There's so much pain going on in the community right now."

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

The slide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, which is continuing to back up. Authorities said at least seven homes were now flooded, with more flooding 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 governor Jay Inslee described the scene as "a square mile of total devastation" after flying over the area and President Barack Obama declared an emergency, ordering aid for the community and national agencies to co-ordinate relief efforts.

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