Tuesday, March 25, 2014

At Least 16 Killed, 176 Unaccounted For in Washington State Landslide

Volunteers and first responders using everything from power equipment to their bare hands are frantically searching through mud and wrecked homes in the northwestern corner of Washington state after a deadly landslide flattened dozens of home and blocked a state highway as well as the nearby Stillagumish River.

Searchers in the Snohomish County community of Oso found two more bodies in the mud and debris on Tuesday and authorities feared that the death toll could climb.

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington has confirmed two more bodies have been recovered and eight more bodies located in Saturday's landslide.

The announcement put the official death toll at 16, with the possibility of 24 dead once the other bodies are confirmed. Searchers found no living survivors Tuesday buried in the tons of mud and crumpled homes in Oso, about 55 miles northeast of Seattle.

The grim discoveries further demoralized the four-day search, as the threat of flash floods or another landslide loomed over the rescuers. With scores still missing, authorities are working off a list of 176 people unaccounted for, though some names were believed to be duplicates. Pennington said an updated number would be available Wednesday.

Both Pennington and Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots acknowledged the chances of finding survivors was small, but said the effort remained a rescue and recovery operation.

"We haven't lost hope there's a possibility that we could find somebody alive in some pocket area as the days go on," said Hots. "We are coming to the realization that may not be a possibility, but we are going full steam ahead. Even if we said it was a recovery operation, we are still going at this like I indicated earlier on all eight cylinders. We are going at this hard."

Hots said 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.

There were also concerns that communities further upstream from the massive landslide could be flooded from the blocked Stillagumish river as well as accumulated rainfall that is forecast. However, a spokesperson for the Snohomish County Sheriff's department says that the river is starting to trickle through and around the blockage caused by the massive landslide. The slide was also big enough to be detected by the University of Washington's seismic listening devices at the school's Pacific Northwest Seismic Network- although scientists were quick to point out that the landslide wasn't necessarily triggered by an earthquake. As recently as 2006 there had been significant landslides in that part of Snohomish county, only not as destructive as Sunday's landslide.

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