Hope of finding mudslide survivors dims as unofficial death toll rises to 24

Dan Springer reports from Arlington, Washington State


Washington state officials say crews have recovered two bodies and believe they have located another eight in the debris of a massive landslide, bringing the likely death toll to 24 amid diminishing hope of finding survivors as the search enters its fifth day.

Two more fatalities were recovered Tuesday and another eight found but not yet recovered, in addition to the 14 deaths already reported, according to Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots. 

The mudslide, which struck the town of Oso on Saturday morning, also resulted in as many as 176 missing person reports, but officials said they could not tell how many were duplicates. Authorities are keeping the official toll at 16 until the eight other bodies are recovered.

Hots said earlier authorities offer their “deepest sympathies and condolences to the families affected by this disaster.” 

About 200 responders using everything from heavy equipment and search dogs to their bare hands were working through the debris field Tuesday in rainy, wet conditions.

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"We didn't locate anybody alive," Hots said. "We haven't lost hope that there's a possibility that we can find somebody alive in some pocket area."

That number of people unaccounted for is expected to change because the power to the nearby logging town of Darrington was restored and more people have called in. An updated number would be available Wednesday, Snohomish County Emergency Department director John Pennington said.  

"We're all still hoping for that miracle but we are preparing for the other possibility," Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said Tuesday afternoon. 

A volunteer was injured Tuesday when he was struck by debris blown by a helicopter's rotor. The man was transported to a hospital for evaluation, but the injuries appear minor, Snohomish County sheriff's spokeswoman Shari Ireton said in a statement.

The 1-square-mile mudslide struck Saturday morning. Authorities have described the search for additional survivors to be "grim" as crews battle uneven ground and rising waters. Monday’s search included specially trained dogs, firefighters, law enforcement, aircraft and search-and-rescue teams. Heavy equipment from the Washington State Department of Transportation helped to move trees, boulders and earth. 

Authorities believe that the mudslide destroyed 35 homes, as well as 13 manufactured homes, including RVs, and at least one cabin. Part of the difficulty in determining the exact number of missing people comes from authorities not knowing how many of the homes, some of which are kept for vacationing visitors, were occupied at the time of the slide. Authorities also believe some nonresidents may have been working in the area, while some victims may have been passing through in their cars on nearby State Highway 530. 

Another obstacle has been the chaotic nature of the debris field itself. In some places, the ground is covered by 15 feet of rubble. 

"It's muddy in areas, it's like quicksand," said Hots. "One of the folks out there told me, 'Chief, sometimes it takes five minutes to walk 40 or 50 feet.'" Searchers are also running into gasoline and septic discharge and dealing with ground that geologists warn remains unstable. Authorities believe the slide was caused by ground made unstable by recent heavy rainfall. 

Ed Hrivnak, who was co-piloting an aircraft that was first to arrive at the scene Saturday, 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 still missing.

A 22-week-old baby injured in the mudslide remained in critical condition Tuesday, Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center said. His mother was also among the injured. 

President Obama Tuesday asked Americans to send their thoughts and prayers to Washington state as search operations continue. He said first responders have acted bravely and people have come forward to help fellow citizens.

Obama said he spoke with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and signed an emergency declaration for the state, adding that his administration is in ongoing contact with state officials.

Evacuation shelters were set up at Post Middle School in Arlington and the Darrington Community Center.

Click for more from's Cristina Corbin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.