OSO, Washington (AP) — The scale of a massive mudslide's devastation in a rural village north of Seattle is becoming apparent days after a wall of heavy mud heaved houses off their foundations, toppled trees and left a gaping cavity on what had been a tree-covered hillside.
JEMS: At Least Eight Killed in Massive Washington Mudslide
At least 14 people are confirmed dead, dozens more are thought to be unaccounted for or missing, and about 30 homes are destroyed.
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. "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 missing.
Rescuers racing in fire trucks and ambulances screeched to a stop at the edge of the 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.
Mendoza reported from San Jose, California. Associated Press writers Phuong Le and Donna Gordon Blankinship in Seattle and Lisa Baumann in Arlington, Wash., contributed to this report.
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