Mudslide death toll rises to 24 as rescuers search for a ninth consecutive day
ARLINGTON, Wash. — (KCPQ) — The official, confirmed death toll in Washington state’s devastating mudslide rose to 24 Monday, with a total of 17 of those bodies positively identified.
Thirty people were listed still listed as missing Monday. The previous number of confirmed fatalities had been 21 on Sunday night.
Victims families have to be notified in person before the list is made public. Jason Biermann, program manager of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, said 7 others were awaiting identification.
Monday marked the ninth day of continued “rescue and recovery operations,” officials said. More than 600 search and rescue personnel remained in the debris field, and were searching in mud that at points was 60 feet deep. Safety of the rescue workers remains a top priority, officials said Monday.
“We still have geologists watching the area like a hawk to make sure search crews are safe,” incident supervisor Steve Harris said.
The number of missing had dropped sharply Saturday night from 90 to 30 — and Biermann said there were still 30 listed missing as Sunday night. Biermann also said that heavy rain on Saturday had created ponds on the east side of the debris field that were too deep for workers to drain and to work in, and they would have to wait for the ponds to lower naturally before trying to drain them. However, good weather Monday offered hope for searchers.
Some Seattle Seahawks players planned to visit the slide area Monday, playing catch with some of the Darrington school children who are on break.
Earlier Sunday, church congregations across Washington offered prayers Sunday and honored the memory of the victims of Washington’s devastating mudslide, as the painstaking, painful search for the missing in the massive debris field entered its second week.
“We’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan and seen some horrific things, but it’s something else to see this happen to your own community,” Army veteran Bret Cunningham, 47, of Camano Island, told the Los Angeles Times.
Gov. Jay Inslee took an aerial helicopter tour of the disaster site Sunday afternoon to see the progress that had been made and told reporters afterward he is not ready to give up hope of searchers finding survivors.
“We’re looking for that miracle out there right now,” he said. “I saw 400, 500 people out there (searchers) who are also looking for that miracle.”
A statewide moment of silence was held at 10:37 Saturday — the exact moment on the previous Saturday, March 22, when the massive wall of mud, trees and boulders came roaring down over State Route 530 and destroyed everything in its path near the tiny rural town of Oso, 55 miles northeast of Seattle.
The slide leveled at least 35 houses and 14 other homes and dammed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
The debris field, with mud as deep as 40 feet in some spots, stretches over one square mile. Some survivors were rescued in the immediate aftermath of the mudslide on that March 22 morning, but hundreds of searchers, including local volunteers scouring the area for family members and friends, and specially trained dogs have found no signs of life since then.
“The slide hit with such force that oftentimes rescuers are not finding full, intact victims,” Biermann said Saturday night.
Identification of the victims has been challenging, another official said.
On Sunday, Washington State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kris Reitmann told reporters at a briefing in Darrington, Wash., that a total of about 620 members of local, state and federal agencies are working on the mudslide search. In addition, there are dozens of volunteers, and Reitmann said volunteer “memento collection crews” have been established to find personal belongings in the mud so that they can be reunited with survivors and victims’ families.
She also said that dog teams are taking a two-day break. “Conditions on the slide field are difficult, and so this is just a time to take care of the dogs. In addition, after a long time on a scene, dogs can lose their sensing ability, so taking that break is important.”