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Search list expands in Washington State mudslide

MUDSLIDE-1-master675By Kirk Johnson From The New York Times

ARLINGTON, Wash. — Estimates about the number of people who may have been in the vicinity when a huge mudslide smashed through the tiny community of Oso continued to grow on Monday, as Snohomish County officials said they had compiled 176 reports of people unaccounted for since the disaster, which killed at least 14 people and wounded at least eight more.

And amid concerns about new mudslides, search and rescue organizers pulled back some of the roughly 100 responders at the site from areas near the slope where the moisture-laden soils cascaded down around 10:45 Saturday morning.

Emergency management officials cautioned on Monday that the new reports of people unaccounted for were likely to be revised downward, as some are duplicates or vague at best, with little more than a first name to go on. The officials also said search and rescue efforts were continuing where possible on the square-mile site, using dogs, ground-penetrating radar, aircraft and other tools.

But the sense of an expanding disaster — one touching more lives — was unavoidable as a better understanding of the slide’s grim dimensions emerged. Emergency officials said the new list included not just residents, but also home repair contractors, visitors and people who were perhaps driving on a state road when the slide released.

That the slide happened on a Saturday morning, with children out of school and many adults off work, they said, added to fears that more people were at home.

A compiled census of homes and structures in the slide zone, also released Monday by county officials, identified 49 building or residential sites, 25 of which are believed to have been occupied full time.

“Everyone knows someone that’s missing or affected,” said Juanita Beck, the manager of the Stilly Coffee House here in Arlington, a city where responders have established their command center, about 20 miles from the slide.

Search and rescue officials said that the slide was still being treated as a rescue operation, but that the chances that anyone might still be found alive were fading. The slide, on a slope east of Oso that also collapsed in 2006, released a surging torrent of rocks, trees and splintered homes. State Route 530 was covered with about 10 to 12 feet of mud and debris.

The first portraits of people who died, escaped or, by sheer luck, were at a baseball game or movie during the deadly slide were starting to emerge as well.

Linda McPherson, 68, and her husband, Gary (Mac) McPherson, were sitting in their reclining chairs in the living room in Oso when the mudslide hit, Ms. McPherson’s sister, Irene Kuntz, said in a telephone interview on Monday. The debris split their home into pieces in an instant. Ms. McPherson’s body was recovered soon after, Ms. Kuntz said. But, she said, Mr. McPherson survived and was hospitalized for “pretty serious” injuries. He was expected to be released on Monday.

“He was trapped in a section of the house,” Ms. Kuntz said. “The house was split apart, you could say, sections here and there.”

Tales of strange and unlikely survival were also starting to emerge.

Ms. Kuntz’s son, Cory, for example, who lived in Oso next door to Linda McPherson, his aunt, was with his wife at their son’s baseball game in Tacoma when the mudslide hit. That saved them, Ms. Kuntz said.

But their home was flattened. And their dog, which they had left at home while they went to the game, was missing.

On Sunday, the family went back to the house, hoping to salvage what it could, and heard the dog, a Lab named Buddy, whimpering inside “a huge pile of stuff.”

“He was trapped under a pile of rubbish, broken boards, lots of mud — stuff that had accumulated into a pile, debris,” Ms. Kuntz said.

Steve Thomsen, the Snohomish County public works director, estimated a total volume of 15 million cubic yards of earth, or the equivalent of about three million dump truck loads, came down the mountain in seconds.

“The situation is very grim,” Travis Hots, a local fire official, said Monday in a briefing with reporters. “We’re still holding out hope that we’re going to be able to find people that may still be alive. But keep in mind we have not found anybody alive on this pile since Saturday.”

He and other rescue workers described a scene of stark devastation and continued danger, with the responder teams and their dogs and machines, probing or peering into the soil, still unable to reach certain areas of the debris field because of the risk of sinking into quicksand-like mud.

Heavy rains that have saturated western Washington in the last two months, which forecasters predicted would resume Monday night and continue into the coming days, are considered a major factor in prompting the slide.

But the terrain in the area — glacial sediments, deposited more than 12,000 years ago, with steep bluffs carved by snow-fed rivers — created the setting where that precipitation could percolate down.

David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington, said the sediment consisted of a relatively loose mix of materials, including sand, silt, clay and boulders. “The bottom line is, it’s not hard rock,” he said.


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